Saturday, 31 December 2016

2016: What A Fucking Year, Eh?

From the seemingly unstoppable rise of fascism, to the heart-breaking refugee crisis and the enraging response to it in the media, to the almost-daily death notices, 2016 has sucked balls. And while, on a personal level, it's had some high points, at times I've felt a bit like I've been in a holding pattern: lots of planning for what's to come but not much actual capital-p Progress. It's been a year of plodding from day-to-day, doing what I need to survive, without really getting to anyplace new. Still, I think I'm in a better place than at the start of the year and really, what more can one ask for?
Despite my travel anxiety ramping up to a whole new level, Thomas and I had some great trips: a weekend in Lincoln to start the year, a great few days in Edinburgh, a wonderfully sunny weekend with friends in Nijmegen, and a relaxing week in Crete

The big trip of the year for me, though, was the ten days I spent in Cape Town with my mum and step-mum, staying with my aunt and uncle for my cousin Caroline's wedding. It was so special to be in South Africa with my mum for the first time, and she regaled me with tales of her youth (they mostly fell into three camps: this is where I went to the library/this is where I protested apartheid/this is where I snogged boys. The first two were par for the course, the third somewhat of a shock!).
By far the best thing to come out of 2016 is this furry face. We adopted Missy exactly 6 months ago and she has been a constant joy (and a near-constant worry, we are such neurotic cat parents!). I quite genuinely don't know how I would have made it through those dark post-Brexit days without her. She remains a skittish little thing who prefers to sit near rather than on us, but she loves getting head rubs, playing with her favourite toys - a pink mouse and an old shoelace - and hanging out in the garden. Oh, and sleeping, as you can see from these pictures.
While this year hasn't been as productive creatively as I would have liked, I am so glad to have returned to sewing. I spent much of November and December beavering away on various projects and I think (I hope) that their recipients appreciated them.

2016 was also the year I finally finished the zine I'd been working on for almost two years. I had grand plans to complete another one before the end of the year, but with only hours remaining, that's clearly not going to happen. However, getting back into zines, visiting fairs, chatting to other zinesters and contributing to other people's zines has been one of my favourite things this year. 

Thanks to the encouragement of Ingrid (no way would I have submitted it otherwise), I had my zine accepted by Pen Fight Distro, which was genuinely one of my highlights of the year (I can't get over the fact that something I created is available to buy somewhere I'm not selling it, if that makes sense?!) and I also contributed to Lou's zine All Your Faves Are Problematic and Kirsty's zine about heterosexism, Versions Of Violence.
I suppose another big thing to happen in 2016 was starting a new blog, having destroyed the commenting system on my old one. I haven't been as prolific here as I would have liked, but am so happy that all my old readers and commenters seem to have followed me, together with some welcome new faces. My most popular posts of 2016 have been the one about our budget kitchen makeover and the one where you learnt some fascinating facts about me.

There's been so much that I haven't blogged about this year but that was important: I did jury duty, which was amazing and gruelling and fascinating; I finished teaching completely in July, and have yet to unpick my feelings around that; Thomas graduated with his PhD and since then has been travelling the country for research, visited Iceland, been published by TIME Magazine, and generally worked his arse off as a junior academic, which comes with zero job security. We made a decision to work towards leaving Leicester and moving to Edinburgh... which quickly had to be set aside as the realities of his work became clear, so we end 2016 still with no clear idea of where we'll be - job-wise as well as literally - over the next couple of years.
Finally, 2016 has been a year of friendship. I've had such fun times this year- a great day out with Leanne, a festive night in the pub with Rose, and a trip to Secret Cinema with London pals are just three that spring to mind. I've spent time meeting up with blogging mates, both old and new, and forged new friendships online (because internet people rule). But whether IRL or internet pal, old friend or new, these women have been such an essential source of strength and happiness for me in 2016.
And so 2017 approaches. There's a small event taking place in July, which I'm quite looking forward to. Thanks to our decision to have a super low-key, budget wedding, there's not a whole lot more to do on the planning, so hopefully the next seven months won't be too stressful.

Thomas and I have short trips to Norfolk and Barcelona planned already, and I'm sure that despite finances being tight, we'll squeeze another couple of holidays in somewhere. If we can bear to leave the cat for longer than a couple of days.

And as for goals, I want to start taking full advantage of the fact that I'm not as knackered and stressed as I was when teaching, and make use of my evenings. From volunteering at Leicester LGBT Centre's Trans Youth Group one evening a fortnight, to joining a choir and working on more zines, 2017 is going to be the year I get off my arse and do something. Oh, and speaking of doing something, there are fascists to fight. Let 2017 be the year we all commit to not being the people who stand by and do nothing.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas

The presents are (mostly) wrapped, the cake is decorated, the candles are lit, and Christmas is truly on its way.

I've had a lovely, busy few weeks of festive activity. The last few Saturdays have been filled with socialising, from afternoon tea with Becca & Elle, to Christmas drinks with Thomas and our friend Rose. This week, Rebs came to stay and we went to a brilliant benefit gig for Leicester Rape Crisis featuring Sara Pascoe, Josie Long and Grace Petrie, and the next evening I went to Leicester Cathedral for their annual Seven Lessons & Carols service. Despite having been an atheist for the past twenty years, my nostalgia for the Christmas's of my childhood (which were spent singing in the choir at church) leads me back to that institution every Christmas. I sing the carols with gusto and enjoy the traditions which meant so much to me when I was a child, before sloughing it all off come December 26th.

Unexpectedly, and wonderfully, I have almost two weeks off starting today. Tomorrow, Thomas and I have a Christmas Eve of reading, country walks, Prosecco drinking, and festive film watching planned, before driving to my mums' house on Christmas morning. And so, in the spirit of the season, I'm signing off social media and blogging for a few days. Have a wonderful Christmas, folks, and I'll see you on the other side!

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

What I've Been Reading Recently

The Girl Who Saved Christmas*
Matt Haig
Rating: **
A Boy Called Christmas (released last year) was as festive as it gets, providing a wonderfully heart-warming origin story for Father Christmas. This follow-up focuses on the deliberately Dickensian story of London chimney sweep Amelia, orphaned at Christmas and condemned to the workhouse. As saccharine sweet as a candy cane, this is a sequel that doesn't quite live up to the promise of the first book. I enjoyed the cameo by Charles Dickens but, overall, I'd stick with the original unless you have small children of your acquaintance with whom to share this story. 

Murder Under The Christmas Tree
Assorted authors
Rating: ****
Murder Under The Christmas Tree does what it says on the tin: a collection of festive crime short stories by authors as diverse as Ian Rankin, Margery Allingham and Ellis Peters. If you're a connoisseur of vintage crime you may already be familiar with some of the older pieces, such as the Lord Peter Whimsey story, but overall this was a lovely read: entirely unchallenging (in a good way) and as cosy as a log fire.

Let Them Eat Chaos*
Kate Tempest
Rating: ****
A polemic in poem form, in Let Them Eat Chaos Tempest examines the isolation and alienation of modern life via seven characters who live on the same London street. Taking in everything from Brexit to the refugee crisis, austerity, climate change, and the failures of neoliberal capitalism (which makes it sounds a bleak read), it is also exceedingly entertaining and begs to be read aloud; in fact, Tempest has written a foreword to this effect and it is is also available as an album. A powerfully moving call to arms that I know I will revisit when trying to process the events of 2016.

This Song Will Save Your Life
Leila Sales
Rating: *****
Elise is an outsider - when she's not being ignored at school, she's being laughed at - and this leads her to self-harm. And then, on one of her nightly walks around town, unable to sleep, she stumbles upon an underground indie club night. She makes friends (the fat- and slut-positive Vicky is one of my favourite book characters of 2016), she falls for an unsuitable boy, and she finds her salvation in DJing. There was so much in This Song Will Save Your Life that reminded me of being a teenager and I think a lot of people who were indie weirdos at school will feel the same. Is the plot completely perfect? Well, probably you can't become a hotshot indie DJ with a few weeks of practice, no. But I loved it regardless.

Dangerous Women*
Roxane Gay
Rating: *****
Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist is one of my favourite of the recent crop of feminist essay collections, so I leapt at the chance to read Dangerous Women before its January release. A short story collection, its recurring themes - race, gender, abuse and violence against women - make this a sometimes tough but always necessary read. Each story unfolded slowly and carefully: never did I feel that they were rushed, nor were they overlong. I came away feeling enriched by the glimpses of the characters lives and their resilience. Without a doubt my favourite short story collection since Jhumpa Lahiri's very different but equally superlative Interpreter Of Maladies.

* This book was kindly provided by the publishers via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Photo An Hour: Saturday 17th December

In what I think is a record, I managed to remember Photo An Hour for the fourth month in a row, yay me! However, I mostly used my phone to take photographs yesterday and some of them aren't transferring properly from there to my laptop, and I'm frankly too hungover to work out what the problem is. So while some of these are different to the photos I posted to Instagram during the day, they were all taken at or near the appropriate hour.

For #PhotoAnHour last December, I had a lovely, festive at-home day of wrapping, reading, baking, and Strictly-watching. My day this year wasn't all that different, actually, although I did eventually leave the house (hence the hangover).
It's basically impossible to come up with different first photos every month: I've done my bed, my bedroom, my book... yesterday morning I woke up at about half past 8 to find Missy cowering from the washing machine (her greatest enemy), so at 9am I was still sitting on our bed with her, trying to get her to settle down to sleep. Hence the not-terribly-exciting photo of my dressing gown and the quilt.
By 10am the evil washing machine had finished tormenting her and Missy was up and begging for food. She's been mostly disinterested in the Christmas tree, but decided this morning that perhaps Dreamies were hidden in amongst the parcels, and had a good old nose around.
I'm making a few embroidered hoops as gifts this Christmas and spent a couple of hours in the morning working on this one (while trying to discourage the cat from chasing the thread as I sewed). Just a tiny peek, as I don't want to spoil the surprise.
The first of my missing photographs was of Missy staring at my embroidery. Ah well, I had too many cat photos in this post anyway. At midday, the postman had just delivered a stack of mail, including - thrillingly - these amazing Shakespeare stamps, which are destined for our wedding invitations.
A knock at the door, another postie, and the delivery of two boxes - a Thrifty Gift Swap parcel from Em and the most wonderful box of treats from Alex, which included The Best Card In The World. Just look at it: hundreds of Missy cats!
Some final bits of gift wrapping to complete, with the requisite Christmas music playing in the background, of course.
This may just look like another obsessive photograph of my cat (and is, undeniably, that too) BUT it's also capturing for posterity the moment Missy decided to try sitting on my lap again! You may remember from Photo An Hour in November that she'd only just started sitting on our laps.... well it lasted about three blissful weeks, and then she seemed to regress and went back to being very skittish and wary of us. So I was over the moon that she decided to settle in for a cuddle yesterday afternoon (even if it meant I couldn't finish my embroidery).
Up to now I'd been in my pyjamas all day (BLISS!) but it was finally time to get dressed and venture into town for some last bits of Christmas shopping.
My Daily Mail-reading, Brexit-voting step-grandmother is spending Christmas with us at my mums' house. What to get a racist old lady? Why, a Fair-trade scarf from India, of course. She probably won't even notice, but it cheered me up.
While trying to find a pub that wasn't rammed, we walked past this beautiful front door adorned with beautiful wreath.
Not only did we find a pub, but it had a lovely quiet upstairs area with tables - hooray! Meanwhile, I was very taken with Rose's necklace.
Still in the pub, and this photo illustrates nicely why I'm so hungover, because apart from this packet of crisps, I didn't have anything to eat. Oops.
I think that, strictly speaking, this was about 10.30pm when we finally left the pub and wended our merry ways home...
...where I unpacked my bag and remembered that I'd bought myself the best fox socks earlier.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas

Sarah asserted this week that bloggers fall into two camps at Christmas: those who have a theme, and those who have an ethos. But I reckon I have both. From the piles of foraged greenery to the homemade tree decorations, my Christmas decorating theme is simple, natural beauty with just a dash of glitz.

And my ethos? Probably much the same. For me, Christmas - and the far more exciting run-up to the big day - is about small, simple pleasures but with an added dose of luxury. Whether it's lighting scented candles, spending time with loved ones, settling down with a good book next to a roaring fire, or drinking my own body weight in Prosecco, December gives me the chance to do all my favourite things in the name of festivity.

And one of my favourite things to do is decorate the house. No hall is left un-decked; stand still long enough in my house come December and you'll probably find yourself draped in fairy lights and sporting an ivy crown.
As I wrote about last week in my wreath how-to, evergreens are one of my favourite things with which to decorate. Every year I raid the local hedgerows and gather armfuls of greenery to pile high on the mantlepieces, intertwined with LED fairy lights and baubles for added sparkle.
This gorgeous Dashwood Studio Christmas Village fabric (from Crafty Sew & So, a great workshop and haberdashery space in Leicester) is a close match to the George at ASDA festive bedlinen I missed out on last year and have sulked about ever since. I used it to make some festive cushion covers, as well as whipping up a new stocking to hang by my fireplace, so that even our bedroom has a dash of Christmas charm.
Before last Christmas, I'd never thought of fresh flowers as a decorating essential. Then Blossoming Gifts kindly sent me a festive bunch to review and now I don't think I'll ever go without. My budget this year didn't stretch to a fancy mail order bouquet, but Aldi came up trumps with bargain Fairtrade roses and berry sprigs, which I combined with eucalyptus from my mum's garden.
And while I still think my house could do with MOAR DECORATIONS, it really is beginning to look a lot like Christmas here...

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Made: An Evergreen Wreath

This is an edited repost from my now-defunct blog, Words That Can Only Be Your Own
For me, nothing quite says 'Christmas' like bringing boughs of evergreens into the house. From pagan yule logs to modern wreaths, the custom of using holly, ivy and other evergreens to decorate the house in December is an ancient one that has lasted thousands of years. However, wreaths made from fresh foliage can be very expensive to buy - understandable, as they're time-consuming to put together. But with a bit of foraging for free greenery plus an hour of patience and sore fingers, you can make a wreath that's just as beautiful as a store-bought one.

You will need:
A wreath base (usually made of moss over a wire ring - I found mine on eBay for less than £2)
Armfuls of greenery - at least two different kinds but the sky's the limit. I used cypress, holly, eucalyptus, ivy, pine and hebe
Florists wire
Secateurs or strong scissors
3 metres ribbon
Assortment of decorations - I dried some orange slices and teamed them with foraged pine cones and cinnamon sticks tied together with scraps of ribbon

1. First, forage for your greenery. You don't need to live in the countryside for this: I picked up the pinecones from under a tree on a nearby industrial estate, the eucalyptus was from my mum's back garden, the hebe from a shrub in my yard, the ivy cut on various walks along the local canal, and the cypress, holly and pine from friends gardens.
2. Soak your ring [snigger] in water before squeezing out any excess.

3. Your wreath will be made up of multiple bundles of greenery, each affixed to the base. Gather a small piece of 3-4 different evergreens and pull together to form a bouquet. As I had 6 different kinds of evergreens, I varied the contents (so one had holly, pine and eucalyptus, while the next had hebe, ivy and cypress, for instance). 

4. Bend a length of wire to form a U-shape at one end, approx. 1 inch long. Place the U at the base of the bouquet (with the remaining wire pointing away from it) and then wind the wire around the bundle two or three times, to hold the bundle together securely. You should be left with about 15cm of wire still pointing away from the bouquet.

5. Push the long piece of wire through your base, bend and push back in again to secure. 
6. Repeat, laying each bundle of greenery so it points in the same direction and overlaps with the previous one, until the wreath base is covered.

7. At this point you may find some bundles need another piece of wire looped around and pushed into the base to ensure they're completely secure.

8. Again using wire, attach the decorations at intervals. 

9. Cut 2 metres from your ribbon and loop it through the inside of the wreath. Tie the remaining metre into a bow around the hanging ribbon, trimming the ends neatly.
10. Once it's hanging up you may need to trim some edges: I found my eucalyptus especially needed a bit of a prune.

11. Step back and admire your work! Wreaths made from fresh foliage will survive for about three to four weeks if hung outside in the cold.