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You Need a Budget

Round about this time last year, I rather lost track of my finances, and come Christmas, I found myself nudging against my credit card limit (which isn’t massive, but isn’t small, either) and having extended my overdraft four times in as many months. Again, well within what the building society was prepared to lend me, but still, always a bit depressing when your wages go in and a massive chunk of it immediately disappears.

Suboptimal, to say the least.

I’d had a subscription to budgeting software called You Need a Budget* since the previous February, but hadn’t been using it (you all know I’m a part-time idiot, right?), so time to bite the bullet.

I uploaded a couple of months of bank statements so I could see where my money was going (oh. Um. Even with Christmas, that’s best filed under “wanton profligacy”), and used that as the basis for setting my budget for the next month, and settled down to some serious “getting on top of this nonsense,” with a side helping of “what’s done is done, no point getting angry at Past Me’s decisions, how do I get out of the situation I find myself in, preferably with a minimal consumption of beans on toast?”

I cancelled magazine subscriptions for magazines I wasn’t reading, and memberships for places I wasn’t visiting. This had the added benefit of reducing stress of the “will this payment go through? Will I have to extend my overdraft again?” variety. Highly recommended. I also made a point to start visiting the places whose memberships I wanted to keep, because I’ve now adopted a strict “use it or lose it” policy. No point, after all, paying £80 a year to the British Museum if you never actually go there. I reviewed various other regular payments, and switched contracts and providers.

Thanks to my annual bonus being rather more generous than I was expecting, and passing my exams, which meant that work refunded me for my college tuition, I paid off the credit card in just over four months. I was sat in bed, on my birthday, in a hotel in Iceland, logged into my banking app, transferring money to my credit card, because obviously who has anything better to do with their time under that particular set of circumstances? Fortunately, the chap is very understanding and he merely laughed and told me he was proud of me.

From there, I switched my attention to the overdraft, which I tackled by logging into the building society app and reducing it by a set amount each month. I’ve managed to make such inroads into it that at the time of writing, it’s 14 days before pay day and my bank account is still in credit, by a pleasing margin. I reckon that even with going on holiday to the States in a few days, my account will have a positive balance the day before I get paid, which has been unheard of since I don’t know when.

It meant that I could apply for Cricket World Cup tickets without worrying that if I got all the tickets I applied for, the payment would bounce because it would take me over my credit card limit. Some things are worth getting into debt for, however, so I (a) made a judgement call and (b) made a point of asking people who owe me money to put their hands in their pockets, FFS, woman. As it was, I nearly lost the tickets I did win in the ballot because thanks to a huge data breach at Ticketmaster my card was cloned and someone spent an unfeasibly huge amount of money with Deliveroo. Fortunately, the replacement card arrived within the extended deadline the ICC gave me and I’m going to the World Cup Final, woo-hoo.

YNAB works on the “envelope” system of budgeting. You take your cleared income (never budget money you haven’t got), and apply Rule 1 “give every dollar pound a job.” What does this money need to do before I get paid next? Then you move down the categories, assigning money until you run out. The goal is that you should run out of categories before you run out of money, not the other way around. However, the categories are grouped in order of priority, so housing costs and groceries are up at the top, and “just for fun” categories are down at the bottom. If you run out of money before you run out of categories, the essential categories are funded first.

It also accounts for future charges (Rule two, “embrace your true expenses”.) I pay my household insurance in one go when the policy is due. I know what I paid this year, so I added a bit for inflation and set myself a savings goal for the time the premium rolls around. It tells me how much I need to save this month, and I have that money in my instant savings account, waiting to be put to work. And since every pound needs to have a job, its current job is “making me more pounds,” because the savings account earns 4% interest. I’ve been short-sighted my entire life, so “new glasses and prescription sunglasses every two years” shouldn’t be a surprise, and nor should other annual expenses.

The site comes pre-loaded with a set of budget categories, but you can edit and adapt these to your circumstances. I don’t have satellite TV, but I do have the Worst Book Habit in the Entire World, so I got rid of the TV subscriptions category and replaced it with “Books”. Circumstances change (rule three, “roll with the punches”), so I now have a couple of budget categories I didn’t have to start with, namely “cricket tickets” and “paddleboarding”. It’s your budget, you make it work for you, rather than you working for it.

I’m working towards rule 4, “age your money.” The idea is that when you have a cushion of savings, you can make decisions calmly. If you aren’t juggling bills and pay cheques, you have breathing room when the unexpected happens, and you have a cushion for when that unexpected thing happens. Having just spent a Saturday replacing the power supply on my aging PC, saving for technology replacement is rather higher up the priority list than it had been previously. I changed electricity suppliers, and it doesn’t really matter that the bill goes out on the week before payday, rather than the week after – I know it’s coming up, it’s budgeted for, the money is sitting there waiting to do its job.

I was lucky, in that my debts were never so high that I was seriously struggling – the bills were always paid and I always paid more than the minimum on my credit card, but “paying £50 a month in interest, plus an unbudgeted and not really thought-out card payment,” means that the fun stuff doesn’t happen, or if it does, it goes on the credit card and it sets up a vicious circle, and the last week of the month was a bit anxious – will I have to extend my overdraft? Oh, no, it’s OK, this time. I could clear my debts with very little serious economising, due to the timing of my annual bonus and other payments, but being debt-free gives you options. My brother paid me some money he owed me, and I didn’t have to pay it onto my credit card, because my credit card doesn’t have a balance on it, so it’s gone into the holiday fund. Every time I’ve been by the Thames or the Regent’s Canal, I’ve seen people paddleboarding, and thought “that looks like fun,” so I checked my budget and there was enough in the “fun money” fund for me to book my first lesson. I was right, it is fun, so now I’ve got a “paddleboarding” category in my budget.

If you need help with significant debts, I think the MoneySavingExpert debt boards are very highly thought of, as is the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, but I think the CAB are very overloaded and you may struggle to get an appointment.

[As an aside, I don’t like the way that YNAB deals with overdrafts, they come at it from a US perspective, where I understand that any sort of overdraft is more like a UK unauthorised overdraft – massive charges and bounced payments, and a general world of hurt, so you need to fudge it a bit until the overdraft is cleared. There are various threads on Reddit and other places about how to account for a UK overdraft, although the goal should be to treat it like a debt and get rid of it, if you can.]

*This is an affiliate/referrer link – if you sign up through this, I get a free month on my subscription, and you get a free month too.

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Losing my religion, V2

The original post on my reflections on leaving the religious Order I thought I’d joined for all my life was lost when I tried to be too clever by half, and clicked a couple of buttons when I wasn’t quite sure what they did. So, yeah, don’t do that, kids. Or, if you do, back everything up first.

This is partly an attempt to recreate that original post, because I can’t say how I got here without starting from there, but mostly some reflections on where I am, some months later.

(Some background, for those who don’t know – I joined the lay branch of the Order of Preachers. I wasn’t a nun or a Sister, lay members of the Order do not make the vows of poverty, chastity or obedience, but live out their vocation to preach the Gospel “in the world”. Lay members of the Order can marry, or not, they have secular jobs, and do not live in community).

One of the ways I lived out my calling was going to Spurgeon College, the Baptist training college in south London, to talk to a class of Baptist and Pentecostal Ministers-in-training about being a Catholic in general and a Lay Dominican in particular. And you can’t talk about being a Catholic without talking about Mary, and transubstantiation, and the rosary and intercession of the Saints, and prayer for the dead, and you especially can’t talk about being a Dominican without talking about these things. These are things which Protestants, especially some Baptists and Pentecostals, find tricky. So I was going over my notes for the talk I was due to give later in the year, and by the time I’d finished, I knew I was not in a position where I could defend any of it with any sincerity. Oh, I could say the words. I could probably say them now. I still maintain that my finest hour on Twitter was when I explained Purgatory in under 140 characters. But the words mean nothing if there isn’t sincerity behind them, if you don’t believe with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind that veritas, the truth of God, is behind every word you are saying.

And then the next morning, my alarm went off in time for Keen People Early Mass with Extra Latin, and I sat down at the sewing machine instead.

Do I regret my time in the Order? Absolutely not. Could I have stayed? Possibly, for a little while longer, but, looking back, my doubts had been growing for a long time, and that afternoon going through my notes was the end of one journey, and the beginning of the next. It would certainly have been easier to stay, at least in the short term, but in staying, I would have done myself, and the Order, a grave disservice.

It’s been odd, making the change from religious to secular. There was a time of grieving, because it was a huge part of my life for a long time, and it was, I think, rather like losing a friend after a long illness. But this too shall pass – I realised late yesterday, with something of a jolt, that the Solemnity of St Dominic had passed with barely a wistful thought.

But in some ways, there’s been barely a change. As someone said, shortly after I announced I was leaving “you’re still you,” and I think she’s right. In essentials, I am still me, for better or worse. I still have a “to be read” pile which will see me to the grave, but instead of a heavy theological slant to the pile, my next books are a biography of Agrippina the Roman Empress, a history of opium, and a book about the history of Europe. To be fair, these would always have made it into the pile, but they are no longer rubbing shoulders with the Divine Office, the Summa Theologica, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and a Study Bible you could brain a burglar with. I still walk miles, I still value solitude and silence, and I appear to have taken up paddleboarding.

Will I return to the Church? I don’t know. I thought I’d made vows for all my life, but that didn’t go to plan, did it? But at the moment, I can’t say that “I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God,” and here I am. Still seeking after truth, I hope, but not currently able to find it in the Catholic Church.

As for this blog? Watch this space.

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Circular knitting needle case instructions

Between the last post and this one, I had an unfortunate encounter with someone cycling where they shouldn’t have been (no, the irony is not lost on me either), resulting in a broken rib and quite a lot of pain whenever I tried to pick up my sewing machine. This is why I have only just finished mum’s Christmas present. Sorry mum.

It’s based on one on Princesspea’s site but Princesspea seems to have vanished off the internet, and also mine has some significant differences so I’m not in any danger of infringing copyright.

I cut all my pattern pieces out of dressmakers’ squared paper first, so, you will need three pattern pieces:

Main pattern piece: 77cm by 50cm

Pocket pattern piece: 36 cm by 18cm

Buttonhole pattern piece: 15cm by 6cm

For the fabric, you will need:

Outer fabric: I used denim, in a dark blue, washed and ironed first.

Lining fabric: I used plain pale cream cotton poplin.

Pocket fabric: I used Liberty lawn in  Mauverine, but not in that colourway, the one I used was green and purples.

You will also need

Iron-in or sew-in fleece

2 buttons

Thread

Using the main pattern piece, cut 1 each from the lining fabric, the sew-in or iron in fleece, and the outer fabric.

Using the pocket pattern piece, cut eight pocket pieces from the pocket fabric.

Using the button fastener pattern piece, cut two fastener pieces from the outer fabric.

If you’re using something less substantial than denim for the outer fabric and button loops, you may want to interface them.

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Sew the fleece to the wrong side of the outer fabric. If using fusible fleece, follow the manufacturer’s instructions, if using sew-in fleece, use a 1/4″ seam allowance.

For each of the pocket pieces:

1) make a hem along one long side by turning over 1.5cm, pressing, turning over another 1.5cm. Press and sew. This will be the top edge, so watch the direction if you’re using a directional print.

2) Press a 1cm hem into each short edge of each strip, but do not sew.

3) Press a 1.5cm hem into the bottom edge of each strip, but do not sew.

You should end up with eight pieces which look like this:

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Position one pocket so one short edge is 4cm in from the short edge of the lining fabric and the ironed hemline of the bottom long edge is 4cm in from the long edge of the lining fabric.

Join the pocket to the lining fabric by sewing along the ironed hemline on the bottom of the pocket.

Position another pocket so it is underneath and 2.5cm higher than the first pocket. Join to the lining fabric as above.

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Repeat this for the remaining six pocket pieces, so you end up with one set of double-layered pockets in each corner of the lining fabric.

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The tops of all the pockets should face towards the centre of the lining fabric.

Pin and sew the short edges of the pockets to the lining fabric. Measure and mark to divide each pocket into three, and sew down the marking line. Sew from the bottom of each pocket to the top, to prevent the fabric buckling.

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Fold the lining piece with the attached pockets into four. Mark the centre of one long raw-edge side of one of the quarters, and the same on the short raw-edge side.

To make the button loop, fold it in half lengthwise and press, then fold the outer edges into the crease and press it flat again. Fold along the first crease and iron flat once more. Sew the open edge closed, with approximately 1/8″ seam allowance.

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On the left is after pressing but before sewing, on the right is after sewing.

Pin one of the loops at the centre point marked on the long edge, and one at the centre point on the short edge of the pocket fabric, with the raw fabric edges all lined up together and the loop to the right side of the pocket fabric.

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With right sides together, sew the lining fabric to the outer fabric, leaving a 6” gap to turn it right side out. Clip the corners, and turn it right side out, pushing the corners out with a point turner. Press thoroughly. Pin the gap closed, then top-stitch all round the edge.

Fold into quarters, mark the button positions, unfold and sew on the buttons.

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Done.

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Peg bag instructions

Mum uses a plastic carrier bag to keep her laundry pegs in. The bag gets scuffed and ripped, pegs go everywhere, drives me spare whenever I’m down and doing laundry.

“We can do better than this,” I thought. “And it’s nearly her birthday.” All the patterns I found online were the ones with the coat hanger in that we made at school (mine was dark green with rick-rack in red and varying shades of blue, I seem to remember). I knew I didn’t want that sort of design, but couldn’t find anything else. So I designed one. And it looks like this:
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Yes, the strap is in two parts with a buttonhole, it’s so you can button it over the washing line.

You will need:

1/2 metre of exterior fabric (I used a denim)
1/2 metre of lining fabric (I used some coordinating quilting fabric)
1/2 metre of fleece (either the fusible sort or the sew-in sort)
30cm by 75cm fusible interfacing
A button (I used a large plain navy blue one)
Thread

The pattern pieces:

For the body: A rectangle 60cm long by 26cm high (cut one of these out of the exterior fabric, the lining fabric, and the fleece – three pieces)
For the base: A circle of 19 1/2cm diameter (cut one of these out of the exterior fabric, the lining fabric, and the fleece – three pieces)
For the straps: A rectangle 75cm long by 15 cm high (cut two of these out of the exterior fabric and interfacing – four pieces)

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Seam allowance is 1/2″ throughout except where stated. I apologise for the mix of metric and imperial measures – the drafting paper I use is cm squared, the sewing machine was my grandma’s and so has imperial seam allowances marked on the footplate.

1) Iron the interfacing onto the wrong side of the fabric for the straps, and press in half, longways, right sides together.

2) With wrong sides together, sew down one short edge and the long edge, so you end up with an open-ended tube. Trim the seam allowance to about 1/4″, clip the corners. Turn right side out, poking the corners out (a knitting needle is a very present help in times of trouble). Press, mercilessly. You can top-stitch all the way round as well. I meant to, but I forgot.

3) Attach the fleece to the exterior fabric, both body piece and base piece. If using fusible fleece, follow the manufacturer’s instructions, if using sew-in fleece, use a 1/4″ seam allowance.

For the exterior

4) With right sides together, sew the side seam down the short side.

5) With right sides together, pin the exterior body to the exterior base, easing fullness if required. Sew.

For the lining

6) Sew the side seam, and sew the base to the body, in the same way as for the exterior.

7) With the exterior body inside out, drape one of the handles inside the bag and pin the short end to the exterior body fabric (so the handle is on the inside of the bag). Repeat with the other handle. Sew in place using a 1/4″ seam allowance.

8) Insert the lining into the exterior, with the right sides together, and pin in place. Sew around the top edge, using a 1/2″ seam allowance, and leaving a 4″ gap somewhere in the seam for turning.

9) Turn the bag right side out through the opening you left in the seam, topstitch all around the top edge to close the gap and reinforce the top edge.

[Optional: discover that the large navy blue button you thought you had is actually two smaller ones which wouldn’t have suited at all, realise that this means a trip to Westfield shopping centre on a Saturday afternoon, sob gently, go to Westfield, buy button, don’t kill anyone].

10) Put the buttonhole at the end of one of the straps, sew the button on the other strap.

11) Beam with pride.

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This is the first sewing pattern I’ve ever written out, if I’ve made any particularly glaring errors, do point them out in the comments.

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On sewing and cheap clothes

Sorry, I haven’t blogged for ages. I’ve had very little to say, so I’ve said it, at length, on Twitter.

One of the things I’ve been doing is sewing. Grandma left me her sewing machine in her will, “to keep or dispose of as I saw fit.”

So I kept it. It’s lovely. Not pretty to look at, but it’s bombproof.

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It had previously been living at my parents’ in Hampshire, which seemed sensible while I was first learning how to use it, but once I had cleared out the Cupboard of Doom by the front door so I had somewhere to keep it and the associated paraphernalia, I brought it up to London.

Have you ever tried taking a metal cased (and therefore heavy and awkward to carry) sewing machine anywhere by public transport? It’s do-able, but you will find a wheeled tote bag extremely handy.

I live in sure and certain hope that we will have a summer this year and so have been making floaty skirts in Liberty lawn.

I think I was cutting out a pattern when the news broke of the factory collapse in Dhaka, and it started me thinking. Vague, fumbling thinking. I’m not sure where it’s going, but we’ll see.

I know the work that goes into a skirt. This one took me most of a day.

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It’s sort of middling complexity, as skirts go. It’s lined, has six panels, a waistband facing, and a zip. It would have been quicker if I hadn’t lined it, but lined skirts drape better and Liberty lawn is so fine that it either needs lining or you end up with the national collection of nude-coloured underskirts, which are disastrously unattractive garments, invariably just the wrong length.

I know that industrial garment production is not the same as domestic sewing. That if you’re chained to a sewing machine in Dhaka, you get provided with pre-cut pieces, and your job is to turn those pre-cut pieces into a garment. That you will make the same thing day after day after day, and the more you make of anything, the faster you get (the last of the aprons that every toddler of my acquaintance got for Christmas took me an hour and a half from pinning out the fabric to stitching on the neck strap. The first one took me about three hours). If you’re paid piece-rates, you won’t stop to unpick mistakes or carefully press seams.

But still. There is work involved in a skirt.

The things I do. I set foot in Primark without benefit of ear defenders, gin, or a sharp stick, looking for something comparable. Other cheap clothing stores are available, but I was on my lunch break and I only had an hour.

You can buy a long skirt for £12, a tailored pencil skirt for £7, tailored trousers for £5, a t-shirt for £4, and a dress for £20.

I don’t think that’s right.

I know, wages are lower in Dhaka, and economies of scale mean that industrial quantities of fabric are cheaper than my waltzing into Liberty’s and handing over £24 a metre for cotton lawn (and, furthermore, that I can buy Liberty lawn elsewhere for cheaper than £24).

But if I can buy a skirt for £12, and a t-shirt for £4, and that £16 covers a proportion of Oxford Street rent and rates, utilities, staff wages, shipping, and the costs of manufacturing, such that Primark and everyone involved in the chain makes a profit, there is a little voice at the back of my mind saying “someone, somewhere, is being shafted.” Corners are being cut. Wages are inadequate. Safety inspectors are being bribed to ignore cracks in factory walls. Fire doors are chained shut. Buildings collapse and people die or are trapped in rubble and have limbs amputated without anaesthetic so that I can buy a t-shirt for four quid.

There is blood on our cheap clothes.

I can hear the shouts of “check your privilege!” from the back, so I’ll try and address those.

I work full time, and I earn a decent wage. I have the money to buy expensive fabric, woven in Italy and printed in Lancashire, which I then have the time, the patience, the knowledge, the equipment, and the interest to turn into clothes.

I have internet access so I can go looking for cheaper fabric than Liberty lawn, or fairly-traded fabric, or fabric which is woven and dyed in the EU, with its more stringent workers’ rights and safety requirements. I can have that fabric delivered to work, so I don’t have to troll down to the parcel office on the bus to pick it up. I am not scrambling to make ends meet, working two jobs, with children to look after.

I am not saying that everyone should make their own clothes. Apart from anything else, if everyone could do it, I wouldn’t get the massive ego boost from all the “oh, you are clever,” comments I get, but it would add seven pence per garment to fix the buildings in the Dhaka garment district.

Seven pence.

I know it’s complicated. Is it better to be campaigning for change from the inside, being able to write to the chairman of Primark as “a loyal customer who has shopped in your stores for the last X years, spending £yyy in the process, I am appalled that…”, or am I enjoying the view from up here on the moral (ish) high ground too much?

I don’t know.

But this I know.

Depriving the labourer of his wages is a sin that cries to heaven for vengeance. Presumably depriving the labourer of her limbs is likewise.

The “it’s better they’re paid something,” argument is rubbish. It leads to a race for the bottom where that “something,” gets smaller and smaller every year because “there are plenty of other people who want your job.”

A £4 t-shirt, which falls apart on the second wash and goes to landfill, is clearly more disposable than something which I have spent time and effort in making. Clothes which I make will be taken up and taken in and altered and worn until they collapse in shreds around my ankles.

It’s a subset of Sam Vimes’ “boots” theory of socioeconomic injustice. When we meet Vimes, in Men at Arms, he earned thirty-eight dollars a month as a Captain of the Watch, plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots, the sort that would last years and years, cost fifty dollars. This was beyond his pocket and the most he could hope for was an affordable pair of boots costing ten dollars, which might with luck last a year or so before he would need to resort to makeshift cardboard insoles so as to prolong the moment of shelling out another ten dollars. Therefore over a period of ten years, he might have paid out a hundred dollars on boots, twice as much as the man who could afford fifty dollars up front ten years before. And he would still have wet feet.

I can spend £4 on a t-shirt, which is so cheaply manufactured that it falls apart within the month and doesn’t fit for the month that you get to wear it, so I then have to keep spending £4 on t-shirts. Or I can spend £26 on two metres of organic, fairly traded cotton jersey plus another few quid for thread and a pattern, and make two t-shirts well and sturdily, which will last two or three years. In three years, I’ll have spent £144 on £4 Primark t-shirts, or (including the cost of my time) about £60 on making my own. This leaves £84 to spend on gin and frivolity, and I won’t have had to go to Primark, which I have a sneaking suspicion is not a shop at all, but a portal to Hell.

I’m not perfect – I don’t think anyone can be this side of the Parousia – but I’m working towards doing the best I can. I’m sure that if anyone went through my wardrobe and my food cupboards the list of things which would show me up as a raging hypocrite would be a mile long.

I haven’t been dressmaking for long enough to have a wardrobe full of hand-made clothes. I bought my last duvet set in Debenhams. But I find that I am more thoughtful about the clothes that I buy now, as I am aware of the work that goes into them, and the price that I should be paying. I am also thoughtful about the things that I make – it is a thing which concentrates the mind wonderfully, handing over a small fortune for fabric which you still have to take home and do something with.

Costings for approximate equivalent hand-made items to the Primark items mentioned above:

costings

This will never be a fair comparison – as several people pointed out to me, I’m too much of a perfectionist to make things badly and out of horrible materials, so the fabrics were organic and/or fair trade where possible. The fabric for the pencil skirt and trousers is a wool/polyester blend. The £92.72 for the long skirt includes the £7.60 for the lining. Notions are things like thread, interfacing, and buttons (this cost is very much a guess. There is always thread left over, which you use up the next time). Patterns are a one-off cost. I have deemed my time to be worth £10 an hour (don’t tell my boss, I don’t need a pay cut), but, realistically, I don’t include my time in the cost of making things – it’s something I enjoy doing and I don’t count the cost of going to a museum, either.

So, some fumbling thoughts. I think all I can do is buy (or make) the best I can afford. I am lucky enough that I can afford better than Primark, or similar “pile it high and flog it cheap” vendors of highly seasonal fashion. I am also lucky enough that I am not interested in the whims of seasonality, and so I will wear things I like regardless of whether they are in fashion or not, and until they fall apart.

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Letter to Alec Shelbrooke

Dear Mr Shelbrooke

I am writing to you with feedback with regard to your proposed cash card system for benefits. I will be open with you, I have a number of problems with your proposal, which seems to define the term “nanny state,” and which I believe is deeply un-Conservative. However, leaving that particular issue aside, my problems are:

My local market is cheaper for staples (meat, vegetables, toilet paper, tinned goods), than the local supermarkets. None of the stallholders take cards.

The local supermarkets are mostly of the Tesco Express and Sainsbury’s Local variety, which sell a smaller range of goods at higher prices, so people who currently shop at the market would have to pay more for a smaller range of food, with obvious nutritional disadvantages. People on benefits are already living on a tight budget, this would make their budget even tighter.

By forcing people to shop in certain places, this would skew local economics. It would unfairly deprive local traders of sales, possibly driving them out of business, and increase the profits of large multinationals, one of which already gets approximately 1 in every £8 spent on the high street. The administration of this scheme would presumably also be handed over (for a price) to Visa or Mastercard.

This doesn’t seem right to me.

Even in this electronic age, there are still some transactions which need cash. As an example, many large supermarkets are not easy to get to on foot, and are a bus ride away. My highly scientific survey (a question asked on Twitter at 7:20pm), reveals that there are many places where cash is the only way to pay for occasional bus trips, meaning that a cheaper shop which takes cards becomes inaccessible when people have no cash to pay for the bus.

This also has implications for people who are unemployed and looking for work. If they need cash to pay for their bus fare to the job interview, how can they get to their interview if all their benefits are paid onto a card which they cannot use for bus fares?

I can easily see a “black market” situation arising, where benefit claimants who need cash (to pay for school trips for their children, or the bus to job interviews), buy “approved” groceries for people in exchange for cash, the “exchange rate” to be determined by the person with the cash.

I am also concerned by the definition of “luxury,” and “essential,” purchases. Who gets to decide if a foodstuff is a luxury and not allowed, or an essential and permitted? How finely-grained will it be? What about low-alcohol wine? A diet of white bread and chips and limited vegetables due to restricted access to shops, is probably worse for you than the odd glass of wine on a Friday night – will the card monitor this? Are books and toys for children luxuries or essentials?

You said yourself in your speech that this is a measure aimed at “alter[ing] the spending habits of a minority who for far too long have taken advantage of the system,” and that “strivers and low-paid workers most need a supportive society where they are given the respect most deserve in trying to make work pay.” However, by putting all benefits onto this cash card, you will be penalising the low-paid recipients of benefits by removing from them the ability to chose where to spend their money, and stigmatising them as scroungers who cannot be trusted to spend their money without the dead hand of the State controlling them.

[I didn’t send this next paragraph to Mr Shelbrooke. I thought it might be too emotive and not helpful].

Someone smuggled a large crate of red lipsticks into the convoys carrying aid to the survivors of Auschwitz. When the military and Red Cross discovered this, they were angry that the cargo space needed for food and medical supplies had been taken up with something so ridiculous as lipstick. Starving, terrified women who had been living under sentence of death immediately began to paint their lips, which was a first step towards feeling human again. It is the “luxuries” which acknowledge our humanity. By saying to people that they do not have the “right” to buy lipstick or a packet of cigarettes, you are denying a part of their humanity.

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I’ve had a reply from my MP

In response to this letter.

23rd February 2012

Dear [rosamundi]

Thank you for contacting me recently regarding road safety for cyclists and the related Times “Cities Fit for Cycling” campaign.

I appreciate the importance of encouraging more people to cycle and to cycle safely and I agree that the Government and local authorities should consider ways to help improve cycle use and safety.

I welcome The Times’ “Cities fit for cycling” campaign which has been very effective in highlighting the importance of improving road safety for cyclists and I hope that MPs have an opportunity to debate the issue and The Times’ eight point manifesto in the House of Commons.

The previous Labour Government also looked very carefully at this issue and introduced a range of measures to improve cycle safety and cycle use including a national cycle strategy, the introduction of local cycling plans and dedicated funding and resources for cycle training and safety, especially among children. Indeed, in the last decade casualties have reduced by 17% while cycle use grew by 20%.

I agree, however, that more needs to be done to further improve safety for cyclists and I am concerned that this may be hindered by the Government’s decision to cut local authority funding by 27% over the next four years, as local authorities play a particularly important role in ensuring local road safety.

I welcome the “Cities Fit for Cycling” campaign and I can assure you that I will continue to press the Government to improve cycle safety and use.

I have therefore written to the Transport Minister Mike Penning MP to raise your concerns and to ask for further information on the Government’s plans in this area.

Thank you again for taking the time to write to me with your concerns. If you have any further concerns about this or any other matter, please do not hesitate to contact me again.

Yours sincerely

[proper signature in pen]

Lyn Brown
Member of Parliament for West Ham

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I knew it would happen sooner or later

Alarm went off at oh my word it’s early o’clock this morning, and I stumbled to the kitchen for coffee, morning prayer, and chocolate porridge, it being too cold for my usual breakfast of a fruit/milk/oats/banana smoothie. (Chocolate porridge is normal porridge with slightly too much Waitrose seriously chocolatey chocolate spread stirred in at the end, if you were wondering).

Porridge consumed, Sub tuum praesidium prayed, I heaved the bike out of the shed. I was riding Felicity, the nearly-sensible mountain bike hybrid with 21 gears, since I had booked it in for a service at my friendly local bike shop this evening.

This turned out to be fortunate.

I made it safely through Bow Interchange and onto Mile End Road, bimbling along, full of porridge and early-morning goodwill to all mankind.

This didn’t last.

I was waiting in an advanced stop box on a red light when a van pulled up next to me, on my right. A fairly common occurrence, this, so I checked to see if he was doing any of the things that would indicate a left turn at the junction, such as using indicators, position of hands on wheel, looking left, looking at his sat nav. All the indications were that he was going straight on.

The lights changed, we set off, and he immediately did a left turn directly across my path.

That wasn’t very nice of him.

He hit the bike’s front wheel, and the laws of physics being unbending when you don’t have a Large Hadron Collider about your person, I promptly fell off and landed on my bum in the road with a slightly-mangled bike on top of me.

Fortunately it was early in the morning and there was nothing behind us, so I didn’t have to worry about being hit by the car behind, and since we were both pulling away from the lights we were moving quite slowly.

I was picked up off the road and dusted down by another cyclist, who walked me to my friendly local bike shop, who took me in, made appropriate cooing noises, gave me a cup of tea and a sit down and took the bike downstairs for its service.

And then I stood up and very, very nearly screamed out loud.

“Hmm,” I thought. “Perhaps a trip to casualty would be advisable after all? It’s not far, I’ll walk.”

Yes, I am an idiot.

Off I staggered to A&E, I narrowly escaped being strapped to a backboard, was told sternly to put my phone away and not tweet, and they nearly took my eReader off me as well until I persuaded them that it wasn’t a wireless one.

I was thoroughly poked, prodded and X-rayed, told that I hadn’t broken my neck or my head or my hip or anything, that I was just bruised and had sprained my wrist, and next time I’m knocked off just down the road would I mind awfully calling an ambulance instead of wandering into the NHS walk-in centre two hours later going “err, got knocked off my bike, can you tell me where casualty is please?” because it’s a lot less hassle that way?

So, the bike needs a new front wheel, I need to buy a week’s season ticket for the Tube and a new cycle helmet, just to be on the safe side. Could have been worse. The moleskin skirt took the brunt of the road, which is a bit rough on the moles, but less rough on my legs, my gloves are wrecked (but my hands aren’t), and I was riding the mountain bike hybrid with the cheap and easy to replace front wheel, rather than the Pashley with the awkward and expensive to replace one.

I’ve reported it to the police as a failure to stop at the scene of an accident, I await developments.

While you’re here, do you mind signing The Times’ Cities fit for Cycling petition and the London Cycling Campaign’s Love London, Go Dutch one? Thank you.

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A letter to Lyn Brown MP

The Times Newspaper has today launched its Cities Fit for Cycling campaign, calling for our streets to be made safer for all road users. I don’t agree with some of their points, and I think some don’t go far enough (yes, I know, my middle names are Ungrateful and Never-Satisfied), but it’s a start. The campaign is outside The Times’ firewall. I urge you to go and read it and sign up.

Here is a copy of the letter I sent to my MP Lyn Brown today. Bow Interchange marks the western boundary of her constituency, which is partly why I keep banging on about it. Also I have to cycle through it twice a day and it scares me witless.

As a constituent who commutes by bike from Stratford to Green Park most days, I urge you to support The Times newspaper’s Cities Fit for Cycling campaign, and to urge the Mayor of London and the Minister for Roads to take notice of the deaths and serious injuries taking place on roads they control.

There is nothing that would make me feel safer on London’s roads than properly thought-out, segregated cycling infrastructure. Blue paint costing between two and four million pounds per mile, four times as much as New York’s recent (and much better) scheme, does nothing to reduce accidents; and has made road safety worse at Bow Interchange.

Only investment in real infrastructure will make a difference. The changes happening on this city’s roads may well “smooth traffic flow”, but they are both objectively and subjectively dangerous for vulnerable road users, and relegate cyclists and pedestrians to a poor second and third place behind cars and lorries.

It is not right that the Mayor of London is deliberately endangering your constituents by this policy, which is shortening pedestrian crossing times, removing pedestrian crossings altogether, and refusing to put them in at Bow Interchange despite consultants’ reports saying they were necessary, because it would “introduce significant delays to traffic.” That junction is so dangerous that vulnerable road users, such as the elderly, those with small children, and the disabled, take the bus one stop to avoid having to negotiate sixteen lanes of speeding traffic on foot.

Sadly, this is not really an option for cyclists, which is why two people were killed at Bow in the space of three weeks in the latter part of last year.

Having vulnerable road users deliberately placed in a position of danger as they share the road with vehicles weighing many tonnes is a recipe for disaster. All it takes is a moment of inattention from a lorry driver and the cyclist suffers catastrophic injuries which, if not immediately fatal, are devastating and life-changing, leading to months in hospital and permanent disability.

The Times’ eight-point manifesto is:

1. Trucks entering a city centre should be required by law to fit sensors, audible truck-turning alarms, extra mirrors and safety bars to stop cyclists being thrown under the wheels.

2. The 500 most dangerous road junctions must be identified, redesigned or fitted with priority traffic lights for cyclists and Trixi mirrors that allow lorry drivers to see cyclists on their near-side.

3. A national audit of cycling to find out how many people cycle in Britain and how cyclists are killed or injured should be held to underpin effective cycle safety.

4. Two per cent of the Highways Agency budget should be earmarked for next generation cycle routes, providing £100 million a year towards world-class cycling infrastructure. Each year cities should be graded on the quality of cycling provision.

5. The training of cyclists and drivers must improve and cycle safety should become a core part of the driving test.

6. 20mph should become the default speed limit in residential areas where there are no cycle lanes.

7. Businesses should be invited to sponsor cycleways and cycling super-highways, mirroring the Barclays-backed bicycle hire scheme in London.

8. Every city, even those without an elected mayor, should appoint a cycling commissioner to push home reforms.

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The politics of the grand gesture

The Emirates Cable Car. Originally intended to be a pedestrian and cyclist bridge, this is now a cable car. Every time I turn around, TfL are looking at their feet in a furtive manner and saying “erm, it’s going to cost a bit more than we thought.” Originally supposed to cost £25million, entirely paid for out of private sponsorship, the cost is now an estimated £60million, with Emirates airlines paying £35million of that cost over 10 years in exchange for the two stations bearing their name and their corporate red adorning the Tube map. The remaining £25million is coming out of Transport for London’s rail budget.

The cable car will be integrated into the Oyster network. So, instead of a pedestrian and cyclist bridge which would cost a lot less than £60million and would be free at the point of use, east London is getting a cable car which is costing nearly two and a half times more than the initial estimate and will cost money to use. There is a charity in London whose aims and objectives are specifically to build and maintain bridges across the Thames. This crossing could have been built at almost no cost to London’s taxpayers and transport users.

I’m not entirely sure that it will have the regenerative effect on the area that it’s hoped. I suspect it will end up being a tourists’ plaything, rather than a useful addition to the transport options of Londoners, and I can’t see the rail service taking a £25million hit to its budget and coming out unscathed on the other side.

It also runs through London City Airport’s Public Safety Zone (“Crash Zone”) so there’s no danger of anything going wrong there at all, is there?

Cycle Superhighways. According to Cyclists in the City, these:

…routes have cost between £10-20 million each. The four routes are, respectively, 2.7, 5.1, 5.7 and 7.2 miles long. At a rough average of 5 miles each then, London’s cycle super highways cost between £2 – 4 million per mile. And they are either pieces of infrastructure that were already there five years ago or, just when you actually need them to keep you safe, nothing more than blue paint…

That’s some expensive blue paint, right there. Oh, yes, there’s a few Trixie mirrors (that are only any use when the lorry driver is in exactly the right position at the junction, and remembers to look in them), and a few Sheffield stands. Forgive me, please, if I don’t leave my beloved Pashley locked up in the open outside Mile End tube station all day. I suspect the odds are not high that when I came back she would still be in the condition I left her in, or, indeed, still there at all.

Skyrides. 50,000 people, all liberally festooned in bright yellow hi-viz covered in sponsors’ logos, cycling round a prescribed route of closed roads on one day a year. This is not the same as, for example, providing safe cycle infrastructure to be used on a daily basis by people using bikes to get to work and the shops and to take their kids to school.

This is all the politics of the grand gesture. Let’s not think about how to actually make transportation better for people who live and work in London, but let’s throw eye-watering sums of money at something which doesn’t solve the problem but masks what the problem is.

The problem is that crossing the river east of Tower Bridge is remarkably difficult. The obvious solution would be a bridge. But bridges aren’t sexy, and you can’t easily get a corporate sponsor for a project which isn’t sexy. I know, let’s build a cable car instead. It costs loads more but it looks cool.

The problem is that London’s Tube network is screaming at the seams. The solution is to get more people cycling instead, but cycling in London is both subjectively dangerous and objectively dangerous. So you propose to build “safer, faster, and more direct” cycle routes into the city, but that conflicts with Transport for London’s aim of “smoothing traffic flow.”

As an example, putting toucan crossings in at Bow Interchange, which is the easiest way of providing safe pedestrian and cyclist crossings at that junction, would “ push the junction over capacity and introduce significant delays to traffic.” Taking road space away from cars in order to create segregated cycle infrastructure would also cause unnaceptable delays to traffic, and so the cylists are thrown a sop in the form of a few gallons of bright blue paint which don’t improve safety at all and for some unfathomable reason cost £2-4 million per mile. The one piece of segregated infrastructure on the superhighway network that I know of is along Cable Street, and was already there. All Transport for London did was paint it blue.

The Skyrides, and, I presume, by extension, the cycling festival that is being proposed for next year, have the stated aim of encouraging more people to see London as a safe, fun place to cycle, and encourage them to do more of it. Only they don’t. To get to the central London Skyride, people still have to cycle along streets crammed with cars and buses, and when you get there you’re practically forced to wear a high-viz vest and are marshalled along a prescribed route with people being jolly at you through megaphones. I loathe hi-viz and forced jollity makes me even more of a curmudgeonly old bat than I usually am. The route’s nice enough, but it’s not useful. The only places you can stop are at the appointed areas, where there is more enforced jollity and various places for you to be relieved of cash and personal data. You can’t actually use the route as a traffic-free way of getting to places because it’s all fenced off with crash barriers.

And as for the high-viz vest? It reinforces the impression that cycling is a dangerous activity which must only be undertaken in specialised clothing in a variety of lurid colours. The Skyride is on a route which is closed to traffic and your biggest danger is being hit from behind by a three year old on a glittery pink trike who’s not watching where she’s going because she’s too busy asking her dad for a bell “just like that lady’s bicycle please.” Why, exactly, do we need to dress up in more hi-viz than a parking attendants’ convention?

Close some of the roads to traffic for one day a year, and say “look, we had 50,000 come on the Skyride.” How many of those 50,000 people were (1) already cycling in London (2) start cycling in London and keep it up past their first punishment pass or encounter with Aldgate Gyratory?

The vehicular cyclists, those people who, like our Mayor, are happy to take their place in traffic and cycle round Elephant and Castle roundabout “with their wits about them,” are mostly already cycling. The grand gestures don’t affect them.

The people who want to cycle but are put off by the prospect of jousting with buses down the Mile End Road are affected by the grand gestures, because they take one look at the cycle Superdeathways and think “I’m not cycling in that, it’s not safe.”

£2million per mile of blue paint completely wasted because it doesn’t make its users either subjectively or objectively safer. At one end, Cycle Superdeathway 2 abandons you before the Aldgate Gyratory instead of leading you safely round it, and at the other it leads you into the most dangerous spot at the roundabout and then disappears with a metaphorical cry of “sorry mate, you’re on your own.”

I’m sick of my money being wasted on grand gestures. I’ve joined Londoners on Bikes and I will be asking pointed questions about what the mayoral candidates will be doing in order to make cycling in London objectively safer in 2012 and beyond. I will also be asking Sir Robin Wales, the Mayor of Newham, why I should bother voting for him when his hatred of cyclists means that Cycle Superdeathway 2 comes to a crashing halt at the borders of his borough, leaving cyclists to negotiate a three-lane urban motorway without so much as a token advisory cycle lane.

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