Sunday, 22 December 2013

Just call me Ma Ingalls

Happy Yuletide, my webby co-conspirators!

Only a teeny amount of time left until Christmas Day and I am feeling pretty positive about it. There are loads of things I meant to do but haven't but I'm not fretting. Our kids and the nieces are sorted with their presents and everyone else will just have to cope if I haven't quite sorted everything out. It's the season of peace and goodwill towards over-committed women.

My goal to make most of the presents for friends and relatives has been a mixed success. I've sewn, knitted, crocheted or baked for 3 nieces, my kids, 3 friends, the kids' school, one Secret Santa and my parents. I've also bought a few more than I meant to - partly to save my sanity, partly because I couldn't think of anything to make the recipients that they'd like.

I've spent a total of £9 on supplies for the home made presents. Get a load of my up-cycling self! I've used duvet covers, dresses, tops, fabric left over from previous projects, stuff I bought ages ago and hadn't used and buttons snipped from stained blouses.  I am delighted! And I may be kidding myself but I think my efforts will please the receivers rather than have them pull the strained "erm, thanks" smile.
Of course I would think that, wouldn't I.

For my youngest niece I cleaned up 2 Groovy Girls Miss B had decided to send to the charity shop. They are such lovely rag dolls, I do adore them. I cut up some blouses and summer dressed B had outgrown to make the dolls some new outfits - all with velcro fastenings to make it easy for toddlers to play. I had a bit of fleece left from making a heating pad for the guinea pigs so I whipped up a quick sleeping bag with integral pillow, and trimmed it with more of the dress fabric.

To finish, I sewed a draw string bag with a name label on it. In my experience kids LOVE personalised things.
I love the wonky typewriter stamps I use for names
Using some lovely Egyptian cotton that was a double duvet cover in its previous life, I made night dresses for my daughter and her cousin who is the same age. I trimmed the nighties and their overnight bags  with the pink rosebud material I made B's Laura Ingalls costume from, and appliqued each girl's initial on her nightdress and bag. I popped a small stuffed toy in that I'd picked up for 99p in a sale over the summer and ta da - a sleepover bag.

For my older niece I got her something to go with the book she fancied. She's very into wildlife and (thankfully) extremely non-girly so I made a tablet cover that looked like an owl for her. She got her initial on the back too. Having seen it, my son has decided he would like one too, so I need to get that done when I've finished the PJs and so on.

It took about an hour (mostly getting the size right as I'm mis-measured the first time) and I think it's pretty cool.

The other things I've made are for people who could conceivable read this blog, so I'll keep quiet until they're received them. 

I did not have a pattern for anything but the night dresses  - and even that I had to change quite a bit to make what I'd pictured in my head. Thinking the project through tiny stage by tiny stage until I've made the whole project in my head at least 3 times before I start work helps me feel confident about having a go at things I've not attempted before. 

Incidentally, I am definitely blaming the Laura Ingalls books for this burst of making and doing. Bonnie and I have reached By The Shores Of Silver Lake now, and the culture of making what you need rather than buying it must be infiltrating my thought processes.

Right, I'd better get back to work on the Christmas Eve pjs. I wish you and yours a very merry CHristmas,
J xx

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Festive and Fabulous

Hello webby chums!

My daughter is fashioning the "number of nights until Christmas" out of blu-tack and sticking it next to her bed, the lads are 'just mentioning' how close it is at least twice a day and the tree is dominating the living room so much that we can't see each other on the couches past it. Everyone I meet seems to ask whether I'm ready for Christmas. I guess we're in the final stretch now.

I'm surrounded by presents to wrap, lists of jobs, chaos and pine needles. I don't mind a bit - Christmas may mean a lot of work but it also means Christmas food. Yum.

In my opinion the greatest of all Christmas food* is the mince pie. Some love the cake or pudding, others favour the chocolate oranges and bit tins of sweets. Mark loves the big roast dinner with all the trimmings but I'd be happy with pasta and a salad as long as I had plenty of mince pies.  I think they are worth a little bit of time. Not much in the face of the hours spent shopping, wrapping or writing cards, but more than slinging something into a trolley.

In my first years living here I used to go to a tiny bakery in Hyde Park, now long gone,  that used light pastry and veggie suet. I'd buy them by the half-gross and we'd still run out by Boxing Day. I don't like the stodgy pastry of supermarket mince pies, so I graduated to Jus Rol and a jar of mincemeat to assemble my own.  Then I learnt to make lovely pastry, thanks to a tutor at college.

That pastry left the jar of mincemeat looking outclassed, so I decided to raise my game. Three years ago I made my own mincemeat and BANG! that was it - my prefect mince pie.

I understand making your own mincemeat may sound a little bit mad, but I promise it isn't. We're not heading into Kirsty Allsop lunacy, I promise. It takes me 30 minutes at most to make enough to fill 8 jam jars full. Trust me, it's worth it. It's far nicer, you can tweak the flavours to your own palate and other than peeling and chopping 3 or 4 apples it's almost entirely effortless.

Apples - 2 large cooking apples or 3-4 regular eating apples
400g sultanas
400g raisins
400g mixed dried fruit - I suggest cranberries, cherries, apricots and prunes chopped as needed.
2 oranges
2 lemons
250g vegetarian suet
125g mixed peel
600g brown sugar
1tsp each ground cloves, cinnamon, freshly grated nutmeg

90ml brandy, cointreau or dark rum

Peel and chop the apples and either microwave or simmer in a small pan until softened into a puree. In a very large bowl, chuck all the dried fruit, suet, mixed peel, sugar and spices. Add the zest and juice of the oranges and lemons. Tip in the apple puree and the alcohol of your choice and mix until well combined.
Leave overnight for the flavours to mature. A week or two is even better, a year is also possible - just spoon it onto sterilised jars and seal.

A note on dried fruit -
Don't use currants. Well, do if you feel you must, but I can't recommend it. For my money they add nothing but grittiness to the mixture. Cherries and cranberries add a welcome sharper note, prunes make everything taste richer and more moist, and apricots work really well too.

*Stilton is for life, not just for Christmas. I thought I best clarify that.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

A Tale of Two Cities - and neither was the right one.

Hello webby buddies!

Last Thursday I was going to Birmingham in preparation for Friday's Women In Radio event. Mark was coming home from London about 10pm, so Mum and Dad kindly offered to  drive over from North Wales to collect the kids from school and look after them in the interim. I booked my train tickets and a night in a capsule hotel. I researched things to do in Birmingham that evening and learnt the route from hotel to event.  I would arrive at the event rested, refreshed and prepared. Everything was organised.

And then came the weather.

Trains were disrupted heading to Scotland, my radio told me. My train was still going on time, claimed the mendacious National Rail Enquiries website. Ever the Girl Guide, I set off an hour early to compensate for bus disruption and a difficult walk across town. I arrived at Leeds station to find out my 12:11 train was running 10 minutes late, so I popped to the wonderful Laynes to grab a coffee.

Back at the station with 20 minutes until my train, I heard the annoucer say it was cancelled. 3 minutes later it was back on but delayed until 12:28. The 12:41. Then 12:52. Then cancelled.

By this time I'd acquired a retinue - an older lady going to her granddaughter's house, a young student going home to Northampton and a young Polish woman whose excellent English didn't extend to understanding platform announcements. Three of them had stood staring at the Departures board on the platform near me at the start, and during the various platform changes asked if they I could show them which one to stand on. We did the commuter version of The Grand Old Duke Of York - marching up and down the overhead concourse.

The beleaguered blokes at the information desk told us all to head to Manchester because they had trains running to Birmingham. One Manchester train was late and the next delayed 20 minutes. We were sardines in a slow moving tin, rerouted around a fallen tree and Dewsbury and waiting for a free platform outside Manchester. Those trying to get to the airport to catch flights were heading towards hysteria, the poor souls.

Upon arrival in Manchester Lena, Beena and Susan, my multi-generational girl band and I sought the next Birmingham train. Hurray, we would catch the delayed 14:07! Except we wouldn't. It was cancelled. As were the next four. There was a hope I could get a London train to Northampton (bye, Beena!) and head back up to Birmingham from there. However, reports were sketchy about trains from Northampton and I didn't want to get stranded too far away from both my destination and home.

News! Trains from Leeds were going to Birmingham now. We all piled onto the platform to head back the way we came. Then no, someone's friend in Leeds asked the station staff there and the rumour was quashed. Nothing was heading to the midlands for the next few hours.

"It's Cross Country," said the Transpenine staff. "All the other companies have given us some information about what's happening but Cross Country aren't keeping anyone informed. It's anyone's guess what's happening. There's nothing coming north of Birmingham and nothing from here north of Preston."

"Until  they tell us more, we're getting our information from the Departures board the same as the passengers," said the nice woman from Network Rail. "We know a tree fell on the overhead lines near Crewe and caught fire. But we have no idea how the clear up operation is going. They said up to a three hour delay when they got in touch at 2:15  p.m." This was at 5:15.

Yes, I had missed the last train to Birmingham by 10 minutes because of that re-routing around Dewsbury. Oh joys. But surely now the three hour window was up we'd get moving again? The 17:40 went on the Departures board and we all felt a surge of hope. With a few minutes to go that too was cancelled.

Those of us from Leeds were over 5 hours delayed by this time. The resigned expressions on our faces were starting to look strained.  I wondered how the station staff were faring. It couldn't have been an easy shift to work.

"If anyone gives me aggro today I'm off! So far people have been fine but you can see them getting more and more frustrated. I understand, but I'm frustrated too and I can't help them. It's been mad." That nice Network Rail woman was looking fed up.

"I thought there would be more argy bargy," the British Transport Policeman said, "but so far it's just been people looking fed up."
"And we can't blame them for that," his colleague chipped in, indicating the display of cancelled and delayed trains. "It's a nightmare."

Susan went to book a place on a coach. Lena did the same, but I saw her later. "Coaches are full," she said. "So is my hotel," said a woman nearby. "Wish I hadn't checked out this morning." 5 blokes decided to go in together on car hire. Several people were complaining loudly that when flights are this delayed they at least get cuppas and sandwiches.
I paid 30p to use the toilet. I begrudged it. It seemed small-minded to make stranded passengers pay for using the toilets when they were stuck in the station for 5 or 6 hours. The change machine swallowed my 50p and only spat 40p out. The bloke cleaning the loos bumped into the lady in front and all her bags went everywhere.

A group of men collecting for a charity for blind dogs approached passengers every few minutes. Not dogs for the blind, dogs who were themselves visually impaired. That is a very niche charity. The men remained undaunted by asking the same crowd of passengers that had been there for hours. Surely we'd be less likely to give to blind puppies the more we were badgered? Or perhaps they hoped we'd donate just to get the sticker to get them to stop asking.

I couldn't take it. I needed to get to Birmingham. I needed a sit down. I needed something other than an M&S sandwich and a cup of lousy coffee from a kiosk. I needed something good to happen.

I went to Sainsbury's to buy a bottle of water. On the end of the aisle were big boxes of chocolate biscuits at two for £5. If something good doesn't happen when you need it to, lateral thinking is the way to go. I bought 2 boxes and headed back to the concourse.

"My fellow passengers! I am having a lousy day. I've been stuck here for hours. I suspect most of you are having a lousy day too. In order to offer something nice in these trying circumstances, I have bought us all chocolate biscuits. Please take one and pass the box to your neighbour."

I actually got a cheer. A little one, but still. Those who didn't want chocolate biscuits (how can that happen?) still smiled and passed the boxes on. Small kids grabbed several before their mums could object and I grinned. It's hard being bored when you are small. Someone offered me his seat. Someone else came over to wish me luck on my journey.

With remaining biscuits I went to the station staff. The Transpenine blokes were delighted to have some. The Transport Police, though...

"No thanks, love. The wife's got me on that Dukan diet," said the first.
"It's Slimfast for me," said his partner. Two big tall men looking tough and gruff in true Northern Bloke fashion turning down biscuits because they are on fad diets; I couldn't quite suppress a grin.

By 6:15 my Network Rail woman told me, "Officially, I have no new information. Unofficially, give it up for today - from here at least. It might be better in Leeds." Obviously everything is better in Leeds, I thought loyally. And I took her advice.

When the next (delayed) train arrived for Leeds I got on and retraced the journey I'd made 6 hours before. Leeds station was much quieter than it had been in the morning, so I had a glimmer of hope that trains were running. But no. The display board still showed all trains to Birmingham as cancelled and the information kiosk staff were pessimistic.

"We could try sending you to Sheffield and then to Peterborough and see if you can get to Birmingham along that line but I can't guarantee it. Leeds to York, York to London, walk from Kings Cross to Euston and then Euston to Birmingham could work, but you might not make the last train from Euston to Birmingham and be stuck there. Just go home, love. Try again in the morning. I don't know about the 6 o'clock train but by the 8 o'clock train surely they'll be running."

The Women In Radio event started at 8:45am, meaning it was the 6 o'clock train or miss it. I felt ready to cry. Dad picked me up from the station and offered to drive me down early in the morning. I couldn't even express appropriate gratitude, so exhausted was I from all that fruitless waiting in Leeds - Manchester - Leeds. I was grubby, anxious and and so stressed about not getting to the event I was ready to explode. A message from my lovely mate Andy sent at 7pm offering to drive me to Birmingham reduced me to tears. Such a kind offer. Sadly it was gone 9:00 when I'd got back to Leeds to receive it.

Ironically, the travel disruption meant that Mark headed back from London on an earlier train than planned and got in at 9:40. "I'll drive you. Let me just grab a cuppa." There's a reason I love him so much.

So, 10 1/2 hours later than planned, 15 hours after I'd initially set off I arrived with Mark in Birmingham. A bit late to manage that early night, but who cares. BBC Women In Radio, I was ready and waiting.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

My name is Jay...

... and I am a caffeine addict.

Hello webby mates!

I have heaps and heaps to tell you but today I have to catch up on all sorts of jobs and Christmas preparation. I haven't even made any mince pies, for Pete's sake. I am off to rectify that right now.

However, I have been plagues with terrible headaches for the last couple of days. This morning I had my first decent strong cup of coffee since Thursday at 11am and POW! headache gone. I was in caffeine withdrawal.

Dear, lovely coffee. I promise never to stray so far from you again.
Jay x

P.S.  The BBC workshop was marvellous beyond my best hopes. I'll tell all when I have time to marshall my thoughts. And when I've stopped spinning about from excitement!

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

A quick catch up

Hello webby pals!

Sorry I've not posted for a few days. If I wasn't working I was asleep, which left little time for blogging. However, I've a spare half hour now and I thought I'd do a quick round up of the last week's events.

When I bake it is usually to order. People ring me up or email me, and agree what they want and for which date. All my cakes and biscuits are pre-sold, which means there is no wastage. With ingredient costs being so high at the moment, this is a definite advantage and allows me to work for a small profit whilst keeping my cakes as affordable as possible.

However, every year there is an exception to this business model: the school Christmas fair. I bake like a fiend and take a stall there, donating either a fee, a percentage of sales or raffle prizes like a Christmas cake to the PTA. I almost always sell out of cake. I enjoy that 2 hour stint of selling to the public, offering samples, chatting and persuading as best I can. It makes such a nice change from working alone in my kitchen with the radio for company.

Now that I have two kids in our local high school I thought I'd have a go at their school fair as well as my daughter's primary school. It is a bigger event which lasts longer, so I prepared proportionally more cake for it. Lots of cake. Lots and lots.

I did 20 chocolate gingerbread cakes, 35 boxes of Christmas cupcakes, a good stack of hot chocolate spoons, a couple of chocolate malteser cakes and a large iced Christmas cake to raffle off. All the decorations were hand made. Rolling tiny holly berries from red icing is a pretty tedious job, by the way. I'd not recommend doing more than 100 unless you have something really good on the radio to keep you occupied.  And the dratted sparkly glitter on them gets everywhere. Still, I like things to look and taste beautiful and beautiful takes time.

I spent 42 hours in the kitchen in all.
I couldn't manage a photo of the whole stall without getting my fed-up "why am I helping on a Saturday morning when I could be sleeping" son's face in the picture, and he prefers to remain anonymous at this stage, so here are 2 quick snaps of the display. The left side held most of my products in order that the right had space to let people fill in the raffle tickets.


Unfortunately, as well as 3 commercial cake stalls they'd booked, the high school had a PTA cake stall selling donated cakes and biscuits. Donated means they don't have to recoup ingredients cost, so they were priced accordingly. With about 1600 pupils across the primary and secondary campus, the PTA had many families to cajole into donating cake. I've never seen a stack of baked good so high in my life.  By the end they were selling them off at 50p for three cupcakes.

Hand crafted cakes made with butter, free range eggs, real vanilla and good quality chocolate cannot compete with that. People went for the pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap option on the whole, except those buying  for a gift. I sold very, very little - enough to recoup my ingredients cost, but not much more.

I sold some of the surplus to the deli and some friends. The chocolate ginger cakes would freeze, so they were fine. The rest I gave away (or we ate!) because all those hand made decorations would collapse if I tried to freeze them. It was a low moment.

Since then I did a day's work in the garden mending fences and mucking out the pets in the cold sunshine. That did wonders for clearing my head. In essence, I lost nothing but time last week. I can't get that back again, so why not kiss it good-bye and move on to things that are more productive. I shook off the disappointment and looks ahead. There was plenty to catch up on.

I've done a little more of the Christmas and birthday shopping, sorted out some paperwork, taught two clubs (glass painting and cake decorating respectively), tried to catch up on all the household chores I'd ignored while I was baking like a mad thing and spent some time relaxing with my kids.
Miss B and I finished reading On The Banks of Plum Creek and started By The Shores of Silver Lake. The Big Lad chose to cash in his reward for a half term of getting to school on time, so we all watched Despicable Me 2  together. There were cupcakes for dessert three nights in a row.  Not a bad few days, all things considered.

Now my focus is Friday's Women in Radio workshop. Eek. Thanks to my marvellous parents - coming over from North Wales to look after the kids while Mark travels back from London - I can go to Birmingham tomorrow afternoon, work out where everything is, potter around their Christmas Market or go to the movies and get up at a reasonable hour for the 8:45am start. I'm meeting a couple of the other attendees for a coffee before hand. From the little we've chatted on Twitter they seem lovely, so that should be a good start to the day.

I'm vacillating between excited and intimidated. Some of the other women who are going seem so professional and qualified. I've just got myself to offer. Yikes.I asked one of the BBC presenters who will be taking part what I should do to prepare. She says all I need is enthusiasm and questions.

I can do that. I've got loads. Wish me luck!
Jay x

Monday, 25 November 2013

Dearly Beloved

Hello webby world!

This weekend Mark and I were lucky enough to go to our next door neighbours' wedding.  Lucky on several counts - the kids and I had been ill all week and only just recovered in time; my ace friend Cat not only agreed to have our younger 2 for the day and overnight but also took our uber-Whovian son to see Doctor Who at the cinema; lucky to be invited to a small wedding when we are only their neighbours (although we like them enormously);  lucky to experience such an amazing wedding first hand.

I'll admit now, I don't generally like weddings. Or at least I haven't in the past. Sitting at tables with people you barely know or can't remember, tepid food brought out in shifts, the inevitable lecherous uncle making inappropriate comments about the bridesmaids... I went to some humdingers in the early 90s that left me pretty fed up about them.
 And then there are the parts my feminist head rebels against - a father handing his daughter to the groom like she is his to give away. Pfft. We're not chattel, no one gets to 'give' us like a gift. At least it's husband and wife these days, not man and wife, and no one has to promise to obey anyone.
 And the money - there are always so much better things to spend the money on, aren't there? Like houses or holidays. My favourite weddings so far have been very small affairs - a party between friends as much as anything. I have been entirely untouched by wedding fever.

Ads and Lexie's wedding made a convert out of me. OK, not about the giving away the bride thing, but on the glory of a traditional wedding. It was an Event - a thing packed full of aceness and happiness on a grand scale to celebrate two lovely people committing to each other for life.

I'm sure you all know the delights of Pintrest. One of the things that makes me laugh there is the number of already married people who have Wedding Boards. Are they planning ahead for their kids or should their existing spouses be concerned?  The boards are crammed with dresses, venues, style ideas, fancy guest books, wedding favours and entertainment concepts. Weddings are almost as big a Thing on Pintrest as the tattoos.

On Saturday we saw the ultimate expression of this. It was as if Lexie looked at everything on her Pintrest board and decided, "Why choose? Let's have all of it!"  It was AMAZING. And for a large part, home made. The work and thought that went into it all was astonishing. I am in awe.

The wedding was held at Allerton Castle, a fabulous Gothic Revival building with a wonderful galleried Great Hall complete with 80 foot vaulted ceiling and beautiful stone and oak carved walls. My jaw dropped as we drove up. Those Victorians didn't go for understated in the slightest.

We were greeted by a stilt walker handing out tiny bottles of cocktail labelled Drink Me. Then one of the groomsmen held out an ink pad of gold, silver and bronze  to press our forefingers in and leave a fingerprint 'leaf' on the print of a tree that served as a guest book. It was very pretty.  I found an online photo of someone else's on her blog to give you an idea of how it looked. It was lovely.
The ceremony itself was a nice, simple affair made dramatic by the surroundings and the astonishingly beautiful dresses of the bride and bridesmaids. Lexie is tall, willowy and beautiful. On Saturday she looked like the Happily Ever After bride of my little girl daydreams. Utterly breathtaking.

As we moved on to have the wedding lunch the scale of effort Lex, her mum and her sister put in became apparent. They'd baked the cakes and cupcakes themselves, which I knew about already (I was drafted in as a last minute cupcake icer). But they'd also embroidered a small cushion for each guest with his/her name on and placed it on the chair. Lexie told me she did the embroidering by hand and was cursing her cousin Christopher for not being a Chris - at least as Jay and Mark we were on the easy end of the spectrum!

The confetti was made with a heart shaped paper punch on the pages of old books. The flowers, arranged by a close friend, were such delicate, beautiful things they looked ready to blow away in the breeze. Lots of roses, lisianthus (one of my favourites) and tiny daisies. From each came a tiny wire bird cake holding a candle. The table was scattered with other candles in jam jars trimmed with ribbon. In fact, the display be the cakes of flowers in a teapot and cups was dropped off yesterday by Sarah, Lexie's mum, for us to enjoy at home while the flowers last. 

In front of each place setting was a tiny box labelled Eat Me. It contained two hand made truffles. Yum!

The food was great, the speeches were funny and sweet. Adnan's account of their first date on a grey and blustery Grimsby beach (Hey Rach, is that Cleethorpes? where we flew kites with the boys?) made me laugh but when he told us of his feelings for Lexie he moved me to a big mascara-laden tear. Which he spotted and teased me about after.
But THEN came the best bit.
Not the live band, who were great.
Not Lexie's quick change into a dress that had her look like Grace Kelly in High Society (I love that film).
Not the DJ playing from the list of 'always makes me dance' tracks that we all had to fill in on our RSVP slips, although that was terrific fun too.
Not even going outside in the dark to watch a fire-eater juggle, swallow and generally endanger himself with flames (although his finale with a double ended staff of fireworks he spun to make himself a human Catherine wheel was pretty darned amazing). Seriously. An actual fire eater. How cool is that!
No, for me the absolute best bit was the gentleman in spats who taught the whole wedding how to Charleston. 

It was ASTONISHINGLY good fun. We laughed, gasped, sat down exhausted to catch our breath and threw ourselves into it again as soon as we could. We bumped into each other, stumbled, lost the rhythm and found it again and by the end were doing some tolerable and extremely enthusiastic dancing in the best 1920s style. I had a blast!
Many hours later, brushing my teeth at home, I couldn't resist doing a few steps in the bathroom. I've been humming the Jeeves and Wooster theme to myself ever since.

So, even though I missed going to the fabric show in Harrogate with my ace mates Julie and Liz, even though I missed my fab pal Sue's party, and even though I missed the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special in 3D at the cinema, I am utterly delighted I was lucky enough to be there celebrating Lexie and Adnan's wedding with them. 
Congratulations to the new Mr Legge and Mrs Velic!
J x

PS - Obviously the first thing we did when we got home was watch Doctor Who before going to bed!

Friday, 22 November 2013

I did it!

Hello webby world.

I hope you are all splendiferously happy and glowing with health. I am extremely giddy and excited because I got wonderful news and I can hardly believe it!

Remember this? My application to do something that may one day lead to the slight possibility of some work in a new field? It was to attend a workshop run by the BBC for women interested in presenting local radio programmes.  It isn't a job, but who knows, one day...

Anyway, there were only 30 places, with a third earmarked for existing BBC staff. Applicants had to record 2 minutes on a given topic and submit a proposal for a daytime radio programme.You had to pass the audio part for them to look at the programme idea, and after that the CV. I sweated blood on that 2 minutes of audio. It is VERY hard to do without any umms and errs.
As my neighbour said, my application was the longest of long shots because all the media graduates and experienced people would be applying. I had resigned myself to not making the cut because it had been 3 weeks and I hadn't heard anything.

Then, last night, I got an email offering me a place.

Charles M Schultz draws happiness best

I am still in denial that I could be good enough to be chosen - I am half expecting to get a follow up email saying sorry, it was a mistake. But YAY YAY YAY! Someone listened to my clip and liked my delivery and style enough to read my proposal and like that too!

Although I would be bloody ACE on local radio because I love my city so much and enjoy sharing my enthusiasm with others. And you get to find out about  - and go to - all the super events and meet interesting people doing fab things, and get paid for it! How bloody marvellous would that be?

Fangirl gush - to be picked by the best organisation in the whole wide world as worth listening to, even just for my 2 minute audition clip, is amazing. I utterly love the BBC as anyone who reads my blog will  know from my frequently references to it and to iPlayer as the greatest thing in society. And it is the home of Jenni Murray, my total heroine and Queen of Radio. I feel like Jenni blew me a kiss and wished me luck.

So, on December 6th I will go to BBC Birmingham for the day to listen to speakers from BBC Radio, meet presenters, producers and managers of local radio and see what I think. I don't know if anything else will come of it but I'm OK about that. For now, just getting this far is wonderful.

J xx

Monday, 18 November 2013

I meant it to look like that...

Hello webby pals!

Fancy some cake? Of course you do. All the better if it's home made. And people like me are always telling you how easy it is to knock up a batch of cookies, or a birthday cake, or some scones.  Just throw it together, it'll be fine.
Sometimes we lie.

Blackberry crumble cake
Well, not lie exactly. Once you've got a reliable set of weights and measures, a couple of standard sized tins, an oven that stays at the temperature the dial claims it is and a straightforward recipe, baking is a doddle. And of course you need the correct ingredients, and not to be interrupted at a crucial moment so you can remember whether you'd added the baking powder or not, and you hear the timer go off so you can actually remove it when it's done.

Sometimes life isn't quite like that. The baby needs a change, or you answer the phone and forget the timer or the toddler twiddles the oven dial, or you're stressed or you read the recipe wrong. Or it just all goes a bit wrong and you're not sure why.

It's OK. It's recoverable. Don't panic.

I was chatting to another school parent last week about this when she said she daren't bake because she'll only mess it up.There is generally something you can salvage from a cake gone wrong.  I thought you might like to hear a few of them, on the off chance you make a mess of things someone you know makes a mess of a cake and you can help them fix it. Because I have faith in you.

It Looks Messy - Relish it. That's home made, babe. You know the labels on fancy-pants artisan scarves or jewellery - 'Some variation in texture or colour is a natural part of this hand crafted item' - don't you? That's your get-out-of-jail-free card. We've all heard tales of school bake sale items that have been bought at the supermarket and bashed about at the edges a bit to make it look home made. Home baking is supposed to look a little irregular. You don't want it to look like that mass produced Mr Kipling rubbish, do you?

Burnt top - Easy to fix. Use a bread knife to gently cut off the burnt top. Turn the cake upside down and ice as originally planned. (A cut surface can pick up a lot of crumbs, and it can mess up the appearance of your icing.)

Burnt And A Bit Dried Out - Still not a disaster. Cut the burnt bit off as above. Then make a light sugar syrup - 100g sugar, 200ml water and simmer until the sugar has dissolved and the liquid has reduced by half. Take off the heat, flavour if necessary (with a splash of vanilla or some lemon zest, just to match the flavour of your cake). Using a pastry brush, lightly coat both the top and bottom of the cake. Leave 10 mins to soak in and then turn it cut side down and ice.
This has the added advantage of keeping a cake moist for longer, so is a neat trick if you have to bake your cake in advance of an occasion (like a birthday party)

Uneven - if your baking and icing techniques have abandoned you, I suggest taking the 'More is More' aesthetic and covering it with sweets. Pile enough sweets on and no one will spot the saggy bit or the unevenly trimmed side. I made a friend a cake utterly coated with Maltesers once because I didn't have time to do the fancy icing I'd planned. It looked so over the top and indulgent it was actually better than my original design. (you don't have to wrap it in a chocolate collar like the one in the picture)

Overcooked - if you left it in too long and it's rather stale-feeling, serve it warm with ice cream or custard. A 30 second blast in the microwave, loosely covered, will make it warm and moist feeling for a short while. Warm cake and ice cream is a winner. (This also works with stale cake. I use this with leftovers all the time)

Collapsed In The Middle - There are a couple of options. You could cut the middle out, pour a glaze over it and declare it a ring cake.  Then scoff the messy gooey middle bit yourself and deny all knowledge. Or you could use a cutter - a circular one used for making scones is a good one - and cut out little individual cakes. They actually look very chic when iced. A quick glaze of cocoa, icing sugar, hot water and a knob of butter melted in gives a good mirror finish in situations like that.

The Whole Thing Looks Terrible - have you any fruit purée? Apple sauce? A jar of posh jam? Layer the cake, jam and some custard or cream. Someone dropping a pavlova called it Eton Mess once upon a time and we all fell for it. You can call yours Yorkshire Jumble, or English Pud, or whatever. The trick is to say it with confidence. (Chocolate sponge with raspberry or cherry jam is lovely, by the way. As is vanilla with lemon curd or apple sauce)

Oh God It's A Disaster - anything even vaguely edible, no matter how dry or wonky or cut into uneven chunks it is, will perform the role of trifle sponge perfectly. Even if you don't have it now, stick your chunks of cake in a bag and freeze them until you do.

I Think It's Dead - dropped it, smushed it, generally destroyed it? My gift to you, my dear maladroit chum, is one word: truffles. Cake crumbs, a bit of melted chocolate, maybe a dash of brandy or rum, or perhaps a drop of cream. Mix them well, form into balls, pop on a tray and freeze for a few minutes (or even a month) to firm up, then drop them in  more melted chocolate and remove them with a fork. Look! You made lovely homemade chocolates! You are so good to your guests.

In summary, with a little flexible thinking you can make something tasty out of pretty much any cake that isn't actually charcoal. Assuming you want to.
On the other hand, if you went to the trouble of baking something for someone and they aren't delighted with your thoughtfulness and efforts, they know where they can go. Yep, straight to M&S to buy something.  And you can open a  bottle of wine box of chocs and say to hell with it all.

Jay x

Saturday, 9 November 2013

An Apple A Day

Hello webby mates!
My house smells of apples. Our lovely next door neighbours have two big and ancient apple trees in their garden that have reacted to a warm and lovely summer by producing enough fruit to keep the doctor away for a year or five. Unable to use all those apples, they gave great heaping bags of them to me.

I've had a great day this week being a one woman apple processing unit. It could have been a tedious task, peeling and chopping 10 kilos of apples in one sitting, but with a bit of forethought it became a lovely, indulgent day. Seriously, it did. I'm not putting a brave face on it or anything.

The trick is to set up your workstation.  I put a plastic bin - one of those trofast things from IKEA that was holding Duplo until I sold it a fortnight ago - in front of the couch in the living room. I put a large stock pot with water and a slosh of lemon juice on the coffee table. A cutting board, a knife, a peeler and the TV remote and I was good to go.

While I peeled away, the bin neatly catching all the mess and the lemon water stopping the apples turning brown, I watched the first three episodes of The Blacklist. That's an entirely daft series with James Spader clearly having a ball as a charming, immoral master criminal helping the FBI. He is very fun to watch.

Peeling completed, I shoved the trofast tub out of the way and chopped the apples to an accompaniment of Masterchef and The Choir on iPlayer. I think the BBC's iPlayer is God's gift to the modern age.

I took my chopped apples into the kitchen, popped on 6Music on the radio and got to the fun bit - cooking!

I washed some empty jars and popped them in the oven at 150 degrees to sterilise while I made a compote of apples with brown sugar and cinnamon and a huge vat of applesauce.

I'd like to give you a recipe but in all truthfulness there isn't one - the apples can vary so much in sweetness that giving amounts is pretty meaningless. I plopped a saucepan full of apples and a splash of water on the hob, tipped in a cup of brown sugar, a couple of strips of lemon zest and a cinnamon stick. I stirred frequently until it was all cooked. I tasted it, added a dash more sugar and removed the cinnamon and lemon peel, cooked it through for another 2 minutes and it was done.

The applesauce was the same but larger quantities - a stock pot full of apple, a splash of water, a generous couple of handfuls of caster sugar and stir well until cooked. Add more sugar to taste as you go. I like my spiced compote rather sharp and my applesauce sweet, but it is entirely personal preference. Just taste it as it cooks and remember it's easy to add more sugar but a bit of a bugger to try and remove it.

I ought to mention that applesauce or compote does not keep like jam. It's the high sugar content of jam that preserves it for so long. Applesauce has a mere fraction of that. I keep it in the fridge because I know I use it up pretty quickly (I can eat it by the bowlful. It reminds me of being a kid and Canada.) If you are not likely to be using it in the next couple of weeks I recommend freezing it in zip lock bags. It can keep for ages then.

Once the sauce and compote were bottled up I turned the oven up to 180 and made four of Riet's Dutch Apple Cake. I posted the recipe here in 2009, and these days I do make it in loaf tins after all. I can fit four of them in the oven at a time so I'm making maximum use of 1 hour of the oven being on, and the cake freezes well. So, one cake to the neighbours to thank them for the apples and the others popped away for later.

By this point I decided I needed some different entertainment. I swapped to my ipod and sang along to Tom Petty. The wonderful Tom is my go-to guy for songs to work to. I have decorated whole rooms to Full Moon Fever. It is one of my favourite albums in the world. I tend to favour stuff I can sing along with other music. It's just more fun. Although not necessarily for anyone within earshot.

As a treat for my lovely 11 year old I used some of the compote in lieu of jam to make Jam Jacks, our name for Mary-Anne Boerman's Crunchy Oat Slices. I find them a bit too prone to falling apart but that could be me not doing them quite as intended. However fragile they end up, they are definitely delicious.

Of course you can't bake with masses of apples without doing a crumble. It's probably a Law. Ever the law-abiding citizen, I made three - one for the freezer for my parents, one for the neighbour on the other side of our house and one for us.

My New Favourite Thing for apple crumble is to chuck a few fistfuls of pecans in the crumble mix. Apples and pecans are such happy bedfellows. The flavours round each other out, adding a depth and fullness lacking when it's just one or the other. I often experience tastes like they were music, and a good combination is like a wonderful chord as opposed to an individual note. Pecans and apples are a lovely chord.

NB - Other people do that too, right? I assume they do but perhaps they don't. It's like being unhappy in an orange room because it is yelling at you or knowing which numbers are friendly (the seven times tables definitely are, the sixes less so). Everyone is a little bit synaesthetic, aren't they?

My final effort - to The Leisure Society's marvellous album The Sleeper - was to start another batch of bramble jelly. This is 1 kilo of blackberries (from the freezer, as swapped for eggs with another neighbour in September), 1 kilo of apples roughly chopped but not peeled nor cored, an a little over a litre of water. I simmered them all together until they were a total mush ready for straining then boiling up with sugar. I do love the rich purple colour, and how the stained apple chunks look like watermelons with their vivid flesh and green skin.

Anyway, at the end of my own personal Apple Day I had 4 jars of compote, 2 massive ones of applesauce, 4 cakes, 3 crumbles, a tray of slices and a vat of jelly-in-progress.  I'd watched daft telly, listened to the radio, sung lustily along with some favourites and made the house smell utterly delicious.
All in all, a very good day.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

A Different Dream of Life

Hello webby friends.

This weekend I did Fearlessly Attempt something. Well, not fearlessly, precisely. I was extremely nervous and fretful about it but I managed it in the end.

I applied for something. It isn't a job, it's something that might eventually lead to a slight possibility of some work. But I would LOVE to do it. It's very me.

To apply I needed a CV (which I do not have), a proposal and an audition clip. 11 1/2 hours later I submitted them.
A picture totally unrelated to the topic
 but added because this entry was looking dull

 I had tried to get the work done much earlier in the week, but I kept finding other things to do than knuckle down to it. So there I was, on the final day for applications, still with most of it to do. Suddenly the reddish hard water stains on the grouting on the base of my shower seemed really offensive. I found myself on my knees, bleaching and scrubbing them furiously as it was obviously essential they be removed that very minute.

That is waaaay more intense than my usual "let's sort out all the unmatched socks" routine. I may have created a new benchmark in procrastination madness.

I sat down  to start, then panicked at the thought of it all. I checked with Mark and my Very Excellent Mates that they would all still love me if I bottled it and didn't apply. They made reassuring noises, but pointed out I'd be furious with myself if I didn't at least try.  My Most Excellent Friend Rachel - she of knitted moustache fame - asked me the crucial question - WWJD?

What would Jenni Do? Jenni Murray, Queen of Radio and all 'round total heroine.The main character in that 50 Shades bunkum might have an Inner Goddess; I have an Inner Kick-Ass Feminist.  She is remarkably like my Outer Kick-Ass Feminist but with fewer fears and less comfort eating.  Jenni would apply, obviously. And so would I. I knuckled down to work.

The easy bit was the proposal. I researched, wrote, edited, sent it to the Very Excellent Mates to look through, and my VEM Ali, who edits stuff for actually money,  suggested a few tweaks. So far so good.

The recording took many hours. Listening back to the first one shocked me.

I would like to state publicly to all the people I talk with that I am *so* sorry about my voice. I know I talk all the damned time but I had no idea my accent was so weird! I've lived in the UK for 27 years now, you'd think the Canadian bit would have vanished completely, wouldn't you. Actually, it would have been fine if it had stayed, too. But this mixed up, meandering accent is a bit odd. I'd not realised quite how much of a hybrid it is. It rather freaked me out.

Anyway, I worked and fretted. I wrote, recorded, deleted, started again. After 30 attempts I had to take a half hour break because my voice was getting hoarse. When I finally decided I had something workable I tried to open the CV Mark had cobbled together for me. It wouldn't download. I couldn't believe it.

Because Mark is a total hero, he typed one out again while I lay sprawled on the bed too tired to think straight. It was 23:24. The deadline was 23:59.

We sent the whole lot off with a whole 35 minutes to spare. Phew.

So even though the odds of getting a place are slim to none, and even though it drove me crazy trying to do it, I am chuffed with myself this week. Jenni would be proud.
J xx

Friday, 25 October 2013

Getting Down with Da Kidz

Hello my webby buddies

I'm feeling all Hallowe'en-ish today. It's grey and rainy outside, I've got the lights on at midday and my feet are freezing. I want to think about nice things like bright orange pumpkins, spicy ginger cake and costumed kids on a sugar rush. Well, maybe not that last bit.

Yesterday I spent the morning decorating tiny Hallowe'en themed cakes with Year 3 at our local primary school. There were 62 kids in all, across two classes. I don't know if you've ever been around that many 7 year olds, but it gets pretty loud. Very funny but at a high volume.

The most important class was the one Miss B was in, obviously. She'd begged me to do volunteering with them and was bouncing on her toes with the excitement of it all as she helped me set up. It was lovely.

I'd decided on two mini cupcakes per child - one with a spider made of sweets, the other a mummy. The mummy was a twofer - both seasonal and linking thematically to the Ancient Egyptians unit the class is doing right now. (I know, there is nothing Egyptian about a small cake iced to look like a cartoon mummy, but if it gives the class a curriculum tick I'm all for it.) The kids were very chuffed with both.

The previous evening had been a frenzy of baking the 130 cakes, cutting up strips of jelly sweets for spider legs because the supermarket was sold out of strawberry laces, dipping half the cakes in an orange glace icing and assembling all the things we'd need. I was flagging by the end of it all, and got less and less tolerant of my kids' repeated requests to eat 'any leftover Minstrels I might have. 1) I won't know how many Minstrels are left over until after the workshop and 2) If anyone deserves to scoff them, it's me.
I'm such a mean mum.

I set up lovely little workstations on the table, complete with a sample cake so they could see how the cake could look. Everything was counted out carefully. The was primarily to stop the first group from surreptitiously eating the Minstrel bodies and jelly legs I would need for the later groups, but also because it pleased me to have everything ready so  neatly. The neatness lasted under a minute.

My first error was judging what the class could do by what my daughter can do. She's been messing about with icing and baking in the kitchen with me since she was a toddler. I hadn't realised how adept she'd become compared with some of her peers. Confronted with a rolling pin, some icing and icing sugar she gets on with rolling it out. Some of the kids couldn't use a rolling pin and others were too worried about touching icing sugar with their bare hands.

Another complication was the open window the teacher wanted to keep the room cool. My tables were right next to it, and the cold air caused my bowl of melted chocolate to keep setting. The only way to heat it up was by putting it in microwave in the kitchen at the end of the corridor. The utterly lovely Teaching Assistant, Ms Lamb, did a few quick dashes down there for me.

A surprising number of the kids had difficulty following instructions. I had already iced the spider cakes. I put a blob of (mostly) melted chocolate on each one and the kids were to use it as the glue holding the (vegetarian and Halal) jelly legs in place and pop a Minstrel body on top. I thought this was a pretty easy one, but there were about 6 kids that needed to be shown what to do 4 or 5 times. On the plus side, no one stuck his fist in the big bowl of chocolate, although we had a near miss!

Added to all this, of course there were the high spirits and excitement of doing something out of the ordinary and the chance to mess about with sweets. This was VERY exciting and cool. We also needed to talk about who had won the Great British Bake Off final, who they had hoped for, who their mums and siblings had wanted to win, whether they themselves had every baked, or helped someone bake, or knew someone who could bake, or had ever entered a bakery. I had to laugh at a loads of the things the just *had* to tell me. Shyness is not much of an issue in Year 3.

All this meant that my time in the first class was extremely chaotic. I spent 75 minutes standing, bent over 3 tables at knee height trying to help 6 kids simultaneously.  The kids had a super time but I know the teacher was aware of the time slipping by and I kept trying to speed up. By the time I came to straighten up I knew I'd done myself no good at all. This morning just walking down the stairs hurt. Silly me.

The kids' cakes did look super. They were so proud, it was lovely.

By the time I went through to the second class I'd had a complete rethink.Prior to calling for each group of 6, I rolled all the sugarpaste out and cut it into little 'mummy bandage' strips, then made the little eye strips too. Rolling little balls of icing between their fingers to make eyeballs had proved a challenge for the first group. I laid out a 'spider kit' for each one - iced cake, jelly legs and chocolate body - to collect from the end of the table so I could sit down and help rather than bob about so much. I asked the teacher to give me 2 minutes between each group to set up the next one.

It worked like a dream. Those children experienced or confident with baking made their own things and those who weren't had all they needed to hand. They were still excited, chatty and full of anecdotes, but I had the time to listen more and be less pressured. I also wasn't in such a cramped space, which made things more comfortable. I'll know for next time.

And yes, there will be a next time. I've promised to do five more sessions this year.
Happy Hallowe'en
Jay x

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Ta Da!

I finished the rug! Hurray! It's about 3 feet across and I am very chuffed with it indeed.

Remember when I said the only way I could be more On Trend was to have a knitted moustache and hum What Does The Fox Say? Then admitted that merely typing the title out caused me to hum it anyway?

I am now as trendy as a human being can be without actually perishing under the weight of the zeitgeist. My ace pal Rachel has knitted me a handlebar moustache. I look like Colonel Mustard. But in a good way.  

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Presents From Nothing - except for a Yarndale purchase

Hello webby world!

I hope you're all well and happy today. I am struggling to feel upbeat in the face of grim, dark skies and a chilling fog. However, I do have a metaphorical ray of sunshine to brighten my morning - I've made a birthday present for Miss B out of stuff we were throwing away.

Yes, I am the zeitgeist-y-est woman imaginable today. Hand made stuff, upcycling, money saving etc etc. The only way I could be more On Trend (hideous phrase) would be if I was wearing a knitted moustache and humming What Does The Fox Say as I type.*

Miss B and I were tackling her overstuffed wardrobe the other weekend, pulling out the things that no longer fit and adding the latest hand me down batch that are the right size for her. Amongst the many items were heaps of T-shirts and long sleeved jersey tops that were a bit grubby, stained or faded. I didn't think they were the sort of thing anyone else would be particularly grateful for. The charity shops at the end of our road have big bins of slightly scruffy T-shirts and baby-grows at 25p each, so it wasn't likely they'd be too interested in the tops either.

I decided to have a go at something I've long fancied doing - making a rag rug.

At Yarndale I'd bought enormous knitting needles, some yarn made from old cotton sheets and a giant crochet hook. I knitted the yarn up into a blue and white bath mat - entirely unnecessary but splendid fun to do.Look at those great broom handles! Aren't they ridiculous?  I don't have a bathroom that has blue in it; the finished product clashes hopelessly. But I did enjoy doing it, despite them being a bit awkward to hold.
I thought I could cut up B's T-shirts into continuous strips and crochet them into an oval bedside rug for her room. She loves nice things for her room, so it could be part of her birthday present.

I won't lie to you, it was a labour of love.  The crocheting was fantastically quick and easy, but cutting the shirts up took about 10 hours across 3 days.  By the time I reached the end of the shirt stash my thumb was numb where the scissors pressed in and I had pins and needles in my hand. Mostly I did it in front of the TV of an evening. However, I did spend 2 hours chatting on a park bench with my friend Julie, her holding the T-shirt taut for me as I zipped along it with the scissors. We got some pretty funny looks, I admit.

 I got pretty good at it, almost no wastage at all except for the odd bits of trim or buttons. I cut in a spiral around the body of the T, then zigzagged back and forth to use up the sleeve fabric too. I got a good few metres from each shirt - not bad when you think they were a child's size 6.

As I went along I joined many of the strips together to make gigantic balls of jersey yarn. In retrospect that was a mistake, although their ridiculous oversized appearance did amuse me. I should have kept them separate so I could chose which colour to work in next as the rug progressed. The photo of the partially completed rug below shows the problem.  See that dark purple? It unbalances the rug, doesn't it. I didn't notice so much while I was working on it but once it was on the floor that dark strip really stood out as being out of place.

By that time I'd done another six rows of crochet and had thought the rug complete.  But no, that dark strip bothered me.  I put the rug away for a few days to look at it with fresh eyes.

Yep, still annoying.

So this week I unravelled it back past the purple and changed colours a bit.This was mostly to correct the colours but a tiny bit so I could play with the GIGANTIC crochet hook a little longer. My next project is going to take me weeks and be much harder, so I think I'm trying to extend my easy project a little. Like rearranging your sock drawer when an essay is due, only in gift-making terms.

I can't avoid the tricky project any longer so today I've promised myself I will complete the last couple of rows of the rug and move on.

I'm also baking up a storm today and need to clean the place up before one of my very best mates comes to stay, so finishing off the rug will probably be done in little snatches every time I sit down for a cuppa. I'll show you a picture as soon as it's done. So far I am delighted with it. I hope you'll like it too.

Happy Saturday!
J x

* After typing "What Does The Fox Say" I got the tune stuck in my head. so now I am humming it. Drat.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

The cutest pie in the world

Hello webby mates!

I love Pintrest, don't you?. Yes, it's full of crazy people making mood boards for weddings they won't have, mansions they will never live in, and some really intimidating tattoos but so what? A little dreaming is no bad thing. I have a board for fantasy book shelves, for heaven's sake. To each her own.

However, for me the best thing about Pintrest is the stuff I will actually use. I've made recipes I've pinned, found ideas for kids' costumes, followed knitting patterns and made up sewing projects inspired by pictures I've pinned. It's ace.

A long while ago I pinned an image of a little pastry heart on a stick. Having spent weeks making jam, I was in the mood for making jam tarts and thought it would be the perfect time to try the little pie lollies as well. It was a roaring success!

I used my favourite sweet pastry recipe  - 600g plain flour, 400g fat, 200g caster sugar and 1 large egg in the food processor. To avoid adding extra flour when I roll the pastry out I roll it between two double layers of cling film, then pop it in the fridge to rest for a while.

After 20 minutes or so I cut out large hearts from the cold pastry, pressed a lolly stick gently into them, added a dollop of my jam and topped with another pastry heart. I pressed the edges down with the tines of a fork to prevent jam leaking out and poked a couple of little holes in the centre to let any steam escape. Then I brushed each with egg (or use milk as you prefer) and sprinkled with granulated sugar. 10 to 12 minutes in a 190 degree oven and - ta da! Lovely, delicious and rather unfairly cute pies on sticks.
Pounced on as soon as they were cool
Delicious, if short lived!

Sunday, 6 October 2013

A mighty sort out

Hello webby pals!

A ridiculously complicated set of events led to Miss B choosing a large stack of books from her brother's shelf. They were mostly non-fiction books about animals, science and the environment, and they were slightly too tall and significantly too numerous to fit on her book case.

A sane person would have removed a few titles she'd moved beyond or stacked the books elsewhere. I hope you know me well enough by now to realise I am not that person. I took it as a chance to work with Miss B and stage a sort out of massive proportions. One that took 7 hours and counting.

Every single book came off the shelves. B sorted them into Keep and Give Away. I sifted again, removing the ones laden with memories to go in the keepsake box and dividing the rest into charity shop and those to pass on to others.

Books sifted, we moved on to the clothes. Every item of clothing in the wardrobe, cupboards and drawers joined the pile on the bed. From coats to knickers we looked at every single item. Did it fit? Did she like it? Did she wear it? Being a lucky recipient of many hand-me-downs, Miss B has an extensive wardrobe. It took AGES to sort. We had items to keep, items to bin, clothes I could use for my craft projects (more of that later...) clothes to sell at the Nearly New Sale next week, things to give to friends and many bags of charity stuff.

Then we tackled the soft toys, dolls and fancy dress boxes. I washed all the outgrown costumes ready to take to the Nearly New Sale, which is why my washing line looked rather fabulous today. The black and green witch dress in the middle will be B's Hallowe'en costume this year but the rest can go. B wanted to keep the animal, pirate and the doctor outfits. Old school feminist that I am, I love that the pirate and doctor stayed when she discarded the princess dresses."It's always handy to have some costumes to hand, in case you want to do acting," said my wise 7 year old.

To be honest the room looks worse now than when we started. I think it will take another 3 hours at least to get everything sorted and labelled. However, there is space on the book shelves for new acquisitions, a crate of craft kits sorted and easily accessible and some space in the formerly bulging wardrobe.

It's not the end, but I can see it from here!
J x

Monday, 30 September 2013

Getting in at the ground floor

Hello webby mates,

How are you all? Have you had a nice weekend? Did you spend it doing chores, or having fun, or just relaxing? I hope it was full of sunshine and good thoughts.

One of the truly great films that I can watch endlessly is Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life. James Stewart is one of the most delightful actors there ever was. I can almost quote the whole film from memory.

There's a bit where George is offered the chance to invest in his friend Sam Wainwright's new business - plastics. "You can get in at the ground floor" is Sam's refrain, but George has more pressing matters to mind - the most heartbreaking and tormented proposals of marriage I've ever seen.

Because of that scene, Sam's telephone chatter of 'Getting in at the ground floor" has snagged in my mind. Although he meant it in a capitalist, money-making way I only associate it with being there at the start of something big.

I took the chance to be there at the start of something big on Saturday. I went to the Yarndale event in Skipton. It was one of the most inspiring things I've seen in a good long time.

The story of its creation is on the Yarndale Blog. In a nutshell, a Skipton Knit and Natter group were chatting about how great it would be to have a yarn festival nearby, and then, over the course of 18 months, they created one.  This weekend, September 28th and 29th, saw the first ever Yarndale festival, and I ran away from my familial responsibilities to spend a day there.

It was HUGE. The roads into Skipton were moving at a slow crawl, the 1000 space car park was full long before noon and the trains were bursting at the seams.  Bright crocheted triangles of bunting covered the route to the Auction Mart, which was heaving. No one could quite believe the sheer number of people.

The entrance lead to an exhibition hall showing knitted picnics and crocheted blankets from all over the place. I'd never seen anything like it. While for me a picnic-you-can-eat is infinitely superior to one made out of wool - especially in a venue unable to cope with the demand for coffees and lunch - the skill and the humour shown in these displays was just astonishingly.

Then it was in to the main hall.  Wow. Over 160 exhibitors dazzled me with different colours, materials and textures. There were crafts I've never hear of, equipment that amazed me, examples of work(wo)manship that dazzled me. Women outnumbered men by about 25 to one. We all chatted, mingled, ooo'd and ahh'd at each other's purchases.  It was so nice to be amongst a huge crowd of warm and friendly people who were so enthusiastic about making things.

I met a woman who wove fabric on a wooden loom to the design of those used by Romans, Tudors and beyond. I'd never quite managed to picture how the threads of the weft stopped getting tangled but after watching for a few seconds it all made perfect sense. Her looms were as beautiful pieces of craftmanship as the fabrics she wove on them.

I saw people who spin yarn, dyed it, people who made astonishingly beautiful items of clothing and lovely works of art. So many were from this region that it gave me a glow of pride that I get to be a Yorkshire-woman too. I also met some of the beautiful originators of  a very soft and beautiful yarn - Alpacas. They had alpacas. Mark is tense, waiting for me to wander home one day soon leading a brace of them to live in the garden.

I will love him and hug him and call him George
The Yarndale celebrity, the lovely Lucy of the fantastic Attic24 blog, was swamped all day by people wanting to meet her, take a photo, tell her how much her blog inspired them to attempt crafts. I was no different - a total groupie.

Happy groupie and tired but friendly Lucy
I didn't buy any yard to knit or crochet with in the end. Instead I bought stuff for crafts I'd never tried before. The first was a little octagon of slitted card - a braid wheel - with a leaflet and a few bits of wool for £1 from the Braid Society (there is an actual Society for braiding. I love this country. So eccentric). My daughter and her cousin are now enthusiastically braiding book marks and friendship bracelets for each other. Brilliant.

My other purchases? Tune in in a few days and I'll show you. I'm having a LOT of fun.

Easy Friendship Bracelets:

Cut a square of card approximately 5 - 8cm (3 - 4 inches) wide. (I used a cereal box) . Cut off the corners to make an octagon. (That's a stop sign, if you are explaining this to a little kid). Cut a slit about 1cm deep in the middle of each side and punch a hole in the centre of the shape.  That's your braid wheel.
Take 7 pieces of yarn/string/ribbon/embroidery thread etc about 20cm long.  Tie them together with a knot and drop the knot through your braid wheel's central hole. Tuck one piece of yarn in each of the slits.
You now have 7 slits holding yarn and one empty one. Count up from the empty slit three threads and move that thread to the empty slit.  Repeat. That's it.

If you are right handed you'll probably count up anti-clockwise from the bottom, and we lefties are more likely to do it clockwise. It doesn't matter at all as long as you stick to whichever way you started. Keep the empty slit facing you at all times so you don't lose track, mix and match colours and textures as much as you like, and perhaps thread little beads onto the yarns occasionally if you fancy.

It's easy, cheap and rather soothing to do. It certainly kept a trio of kids silent for a good while!

Friday, 27 September 2013

Shout. Shout. Let it all out...

Hello webby mates!

Today I have rage. Big, futile, amorphous anger. I feel like this -


... only more so and with sound effects.
I love the world, it's a thrilling exciting place with many amazing people and places worth knowing. But sometimes the sheer assholery of the place makes me want to go about hitting it things with sticks.* Or grab the world by the face and squish its cheeks, yelling "You forgot the first rule of living: Don't be a dick."

*Props to Google's doodle for today, its 15th birthday, for having a pinata mini game so I can whack stuff with a virtual stick and not get into trouble

First there were the news stories about Asda, Tesco, Amazon etc selling 'mental patient' Hallowe'en costumes. Way to reinforce old and vile stereotypes that people with mental health problems are dangerous psychotic nutters, guys. Thanks.. Those of us stuck in the daily struggle with depression and other debilitating  mental health problems were hoping attitudes had changed enough that such images just wouldn't cut it any more. Apparently not.
I didn't even get mad about that one. I just felt resigned.

Then there were a few demented climate change deniers wheeled out to disagree with the IPCC report that paints a grim and scary future for us. Seriously, dudes. The scientific community is pretty much united. It's happening, we caused it, let's (wo)man up and start working together to fix it.

But something that really got under my skin was such a silly, commonplace thing that I can't believe how mad I got. And I got really, really mad.

Last night I watched the last episode of Music that Made the Movies on BBC4. I watch a LOT of film. I love films. But I kept thinking "I've not seen that one yet" about most of the movies Neil Brand chose to discuss. And I'd not seen them for the same reason - they felt rather blokey to me and didn't appeal at all. So I started thinking about it; where were the women in this series? Where were non-white musicians?  There was a photo of woman - Bebe Barron -  who made electronic music for Forbidden Planet as part of a partnership, but that was it. The interviewees were all men. As were the directors of the films chosen.

Then I thought about the previous episode. We had clips of Shirley Bassey and Adele singing Bond songs illustrating the use of popular songs in films. There was a short piece with the woman who secures song rights for Quentin Tarrantino, but in a "we couldn't get Quentin so he's the woman who gets the music Quentin picks." The other interviewees were Martin Scorsese, Lalo Schifrin, Richard Sherman, David Arnold, and discussion of Ennio Morricone and John Barry. Each in possession of a Y chromosome.

And the first episode - the golden age of Hollywood. Yep. Lots more white blokes. Talented, without a doubt, but still... no women? anywhere?

I'm not going to get in to a fruitless "why didn't he feature X or Y" rant. However, in case you think there are no women who made music that would fit in this series of films, I offer you the pioneering Delia Derbyshire for his Electronic episode (he'd used examples from TV in a previous episode so it's not like that was the problem) and (Oscar winning) Anne Dudley for the pop music episode. (For non-white composers, this article from 2007 has plenty to say.)

The fact that there are SO few women in film composing is a reason to feature those that we have. They are the role models, the trail blazers.

Why did I get so damned mad? It's just a TV show. Not one that is going to be seen by many, realistically, because it's on the lovely and under-appreciated BBC4. And lighten up, woman, jeez.

I got so damned mad because this is what TV is like. And film. And comedy shows. And news panels. And video games. Not only do we accept this, we don't even notice. One woman out of 5 performers is pretty common on shows like QI, but all-male-participants episodes are also a common sight. All-female comedy or news panels are as common as hens' teeth. An astonishing number films fail the Bechdel test, for heaven's sake, and that was set up as a joke about how few women are in films.

Don't get me wrong, I LIKE blokes. My dad and brother are blokes. My partner is, and 2 of my children will grow up to be. But for only 48% of the population, men do hog most of the room, don't you think?

So, I have rage.
Rage that plenty of people in product development and selection of national brands think it's fine for mental health to be equated with murderous psychopath.
Rage that those with vested interests still rail against then compelling evidence that our climate is being damaged by our actions.
And rage that our culture says women don't seem to exist at all.

Monday, 23 September 2013

A change in perspective

Hello webby world,
The original and lovely Cake Box
I think most of you know I am a baker. My business's name is Cake Box, and come January I will have been trading under that name for 5 years. (I also had a blog called Cake Boxing but I'm not keeping that one up to date at  the moment). My business is small, but I have built up a very good reputation over those years.  I do not advertise and all of my work has been through recommendation. I am immensely proud of my reputation and work hard to sustain it.

Have a look at some of the things I've done - cupcakes, slices, celebration cakes (The one below was for a Beatles fan's birthday), Malteser cake (a fancy one for a special event) and a torte. I make all my own decorations and have FIRM views about how important good ingredients are.

Over the past week I discovered that a new cake shop is opening a few miles down the road. It is called Cake Box.

Upon investigation, it's a franchise called Eggless Cake Box, but the 'eggless' bit is in TINY type. I work in Roundhay; it's on Roundhay Road. They aren't open yet but I've already had some confused customers ring and email. And if people looking for them find me, people looking for me will find them. I have no doubt people who have been told that Cake Box, Roundhay makes lovely cakes will think the shop called Cake Box on the main route to the city centre (Roundhay Road) will be the one.

We have a different core clientèle with some overlap. They are aimed at the Sikh and Hindu community, and others that don't want eggs in their cakes. My customers are the people of my North Leeds community willing to pay more than supermarket prices for high quality ingredients and cakes, which does include a number of people wanting egg free cakes.

I was so upset. My branding, stickers, ingredient labels, business cards, email and domain name are all Cake Box. I can't easily change them - or at least not without a sizable cost. And inconvenience. Having been careful at the time I chose my trading name that there was no chance of confusion with other businesses in the area I was inwardly shouting 'It's not fair!'when another business didn't care about doing the same. And how do I preserve my reputation for lovely home made cakes when something using the same name is advertising "cakes while you wait?"

Anyway, I felt so sad and defeated about it all.

Then I popped to the supermarket. There at the entrance was someone collecting for St George's Crypt, the homeless charity in Leeds.  They had something that looked like a book of raffle tickets but wasn't. The volunteer explained to me that it was a book of vouchers for £5. Instead of giving people begging a coin or two, i you could give them one of the 5 vouchers and they could exchange it for a hot shower and cooked meal at one of the 4 centres around the city. Isn't it a brilliant idea? Everything looks brighter when you are warm, clean and fed. If a paltry quid can get that for someone who needed it, that's an absolute steal. 

I don't believe that telling someone "other people have it worse" is helpful. It's like telling a happy person that someone has it even better than they - so what?  But I was slipping into self pity and it did me good to be jolted out my inward focus. A disappointing and crappy thing happened to my business and I was only seeing problems rather than solutions. Generally I try to shake off those negative thoughts that I cannot  do anything about but I was dwelling on it. And, if I'm honest, sulking. I felt hard done by. 

Yes, my fiver bought meals and showers for people who might need it. But it also bought me a little sense of perspective. Bargain.