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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Cash in the attic? More like the car crash of my past

The other day I received a press release entitled: Cash In The Attic.

Apparently, British lofts are repositories of hidden treasures. The press release cited research that put the average worth of items left loitering in the loft at a rather peachy £1,922.

I remain to be convinced as to whether or not lucrative chattels do indeed lurk in hidden corners of England's lofts. They certainly don't rest in my mother's attic, which last time I was sent up there to 'clear it' had a princely treasury of half a table, an empty wooden container from a boxy TV from 1980s and a blue Princess Bike that I took apart when I was seven and could never put back together again.

But the good folk at Essex Rooms (a firm which builds loft conversions) who put the survey together, also discovered that Britons have a lot of really weird, dark scary stuff in their attics and to this, I can relate.

The most unusual items were, according to 2092 UK adults surveyed, dentures, dismembered dolls and urns containing ashes - both human and animal.

Source: Tumblr Strange Taxidermied Cat. Is there one in your loft?
There was also a taxidermied cat, a box of Victorian doll heads ... but no bodies ... and a tin can from the 1930s. No knowledge of what was in it. Probably Spam. I expect it was still good.

The majority of people have in their possession old Christmas decorations, baby clothes and furniture that was inherited from Great Aunt Gert and may be worth something but it is really damn ugly and you don't want it in your bedroom, in case you wake up at 3am to hear the chair creaking in the corner and your dead ancestor sitting in it, knitting a ghostly shawl. 'Don't mind me dearies, you continue with preserving the family line'.

To be honest, I would rather have a questionable-looking divan than a box of Victorian doll's heads, which is pretty creepy. I mean, I've seen those films. Even borrowing a neighbour's DVD of 'The Conjuring' made me  nervous. I became convinced that having it in our house would somehow open a portal to the Western shores of Hell, and I'd come downstairs in the night to see the Anabelle Doll sitting on the cat's cushion, staring at me. And there would be no cat ... taxidermied or otherwise.

How do you know if your parents hated you? Did they give one of these to you? They hated you
In fact, I deliberately spelled Anabelle wrong in case it's like the Candyman or like Bloody Mary or one of those monsters whose name you must not say three times while looking in a mirror, or they will leap out of the reflective surface and kill you.

You know, the sort of creepy tales that older girls delight in telling you, shortly before sneaking up behind you when you're in the school toilets, minding your own business while washing your hands and looking in the mirror, and then shouting 'Bloody Mary' at you three times and running away.

Then Mrs Smith or Mrs Bailey come in to ask why you're screaming and pummeling your wet hands on the mirror when you're alone in the toilet. And then the teachers inform your mother at Parents' Evening: "Your daughter is a little .. odd." Yeah. No kidding.

Where was I? Oh yes, in my attic. Now I have a nice attic. It has already been converted into a brand spanking new Master bedroom and, apart from those freaky-ass ravens jumping around the roof in the wee small hours and whooping like headless Victorian child dolls, it is a pretty un-scary place.

The cupboard space, however, is stuffed full of, well, stuff. Mostly it is Christmas Decorations, and Wedding Mementos. But it is also full of bags and tubs of papers from school and university, things that I do not need but which I don't really feel that I can part with, just yet. Notes, folders, boxes of my earliest literary endeavours - all of this is secreted into the corners of cupboards.

I also found a box load of Commando Comics. My mother gave them to me to 'throw out' as they had been at her house for aeons. I used to love those comics. I lent my favourite ones to my friend Will (WHO HAS NOT RETURNED THEM YET), but I still have dozens of them. I say still have, because I did not throw them out. I took them home and read them all over again.

I don't know why I got so wrapped up in Commando comics. I basically went straight from magazines like Twinkle, Judy and Just Seventeen, straight to NewsWeek, National Geographic and Commando Comics, from about 14 years old. Yes, I was 14 years old, talked like David Niven, obsessed by WWII and learning all about international diplomacy from reading "Dagger for a Nazi" and "Dive, Dive, Dive!". Two of my new favourites from my remaining, if depleted stack.

Commando Comic
Clever Tommy
I also became a polyglot, able to speak the dying words of Germans and Japanese Kamikaze pilots as the brave Tommies and Septics shot them down in a fiery battle.

"Achtung! Der Englander! Schweinhund!"

"Aieee! Tora! Tora!"

Yep, not racist at all.

Having just written all this, it probably does not take too far a stretch of the imagination to work out why my teachers thought I was weird.

So, that's what's in my loft.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Perfect Party Planning for January... on a budget!

Several of my friends are having birthdays or having to attend post-Christmas children's parties ("Let it Goooo, Let it Goooooo") in January and early February - just at the tightest financial time of the year. Of course this lends itself to a fiscal dilemma - trying to make the special day special without breaking the bank.

The other year, we threw a surprise party for a friend's daughter who was 21. Being a steampunk aficionado, we spent an evening working out ways to design and create a themed party for her, while keeping a tight budget. The idea was to have as much as possible for as little as possible - I think the whole party, food included, was meant to be under £100.

The results were amazing, and only involved a little paper, cardboard tubes, glass jars, scissors, twine, glue and good old-fashioned grit. Oh, and a lot of imagination and gold paint spray.

The following tips are perfect for any celebration, especially for a money-saving New Year party.

1) Bunting
To decorate a wall or garden, bunting is ideal as it takes up a lot of space and can transform a plain wall into a perfect party room.

How to
Rather than throw out old cotton or linen sheets, wash them, and cut out small triangles of equal size. Take some soft twine or strong wool, and attach each triangle to the twine, allowing a couple of inches space between each triangle. To attach, simply fold a little bit of the cloth over the twine and either staple or do a running stitch. Alternating colours of cloth makes for a pretty pattern.

2) Teasing tea-lights
Baby food jars can make great ornaments, especially if you want to light up your garden. Tying 20 or so to a tree and filling the garden with twinkling tea lights is a wonderful touch, or dot them around
staircases or mantelpieces to add a bit of seasonal sparkle.

Go home Lantern, you're drunk
Right-side Up
You will need:
Baby food jars
Some thin but strong wire - jewellery wire or picture wire
Some natural foliage from the garden
Some battery-operated tealights

How to:
Clean as many baby food jars as you can. Put a tiny layer of leafage at the bottom of the jar. Use the wire to create a little 'basket handle' around the lip of the jar. Make it as high and hooped as possible. Cover any unsightly knots and ties around the jar with a little (non prickly) foliage. Test the tealight and make sure it can sit reasonably straight on the foliage. Otherwise it gets drunk and falls over, like the wee lantern on the left...

3) Lovely labels
Make food more inviting by creating themed mini menu cards to stick into dishes and sit alongside cakes.

How to:
Print out some coloured paper to match your bunting / colour theme.
Many crafting website offer free print-outs of party paper in myriad colours and patterns, and fix onto a sheet of card.
Any card will do; empty boxes or Christmas cards are perfect, as it helps to recycle and clear up after Christmas.
Choose whichever shape suits you and make a template to trace around as many as you need.
Take a nice pen; gold or silver or black make stand-out descriptions. When the ink dries, use a little sellotape to stick toothpicks onto the back of the card and use to adorn your table.

4) Paper chains get perky
A great way to use up leftover paper is in the making of paper chains.
Whether you use coloured paper, newspaper or shiny metallic paper, the outcome can look swell. We used old photocopied sheet music, copied onto some cream-coloured paper I had leftover from my wedding craft box. The effect was striking.

How to:
Choose your paper scheme cut into even strips
Glue or use double-sided tape on one end and hoop each strip through to complete a chain.

And why stop at chains? We also traced some cogs of different size onto cardboard, traced onto metallic coloured card and created a string of brass-shimmery cogs, fastened with metal paper fasteners.

5) Paper roses
I made roses out of an old, battered version of my favourite book and a copy of the Financial Times - where I met my husband - for my wedding bouquet, and for my bridesmaids.

This was the FIRST time I had ever made the roses - and the FIRST time I had ever done ANY flower arranging. So I guess it was a success!
Me with my bouquet getting ready 
One of my bridesmaid's bouquets

In addition to being lovely wedding bouquets that really will last forever (and cost next-to-nothing to make), I have given out single ones and smaller arrangements. These make magnificent gifts for individuals and a wonderful ornament for the dining table if you are having a family meal or dinner with friends.
Unique and budget wedding or party decoration
You will need
Some 16- gauge green florists' wire
Paper - lots of it
A glue gun
Some thin jewellery wire
Some sparkly beads from broken necklaces
Any stick-on sparkles

How to
These will take time but I PROMISE they will look amazing.
Cut five sizes of petal. The smallest should be as small as the tip of your index finger, the next a little larger, the next larger still and so on until you have some large and broad petals.
Imagine a rose and shape each of your cut out books or coloured paper like a real petal. Slightly curl the tips of the two larger size petals to make them resemble real rose petals.
Start with twisting a small bead onto a piece of wire, and wrapping it around the top of the florist's wire. Imagine this as the stamen of the rose.
Then start to wrap the smallest petals around the wire, using a little hot glue at the bottom of each one to fix it. Use five of each size for each rose.
Start on the second size petals, fixing them around with glue on the bottom of each one, slightly overlapping each one.

By the time you get to the third layer it will start to look like a rose bud. On the last layer, you will need to cut a little bit into the bottom of the petal so that it can wrap around the bottom of the rose better. You can start to shape the petals a little when it is formed. Use a little ribbon or green tissue paper to cover up the messy base of the flower, cutting it like the sepals of a real rose.

It takes about 40 minutes. So it does take time, but these roses last forever. And if you want to go the extra mile, try making these bespoke - perhaps out of photocopies of someone's favourite poems or book. I suggest using a COPY of their favourite book... don't just chop up their limited edition signed by Margaret Atwood. Just a suggestion...

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Helping those in need

More than 13 million people in Cameron's 'All-in-it-together' Britain now live on the poverty line, latest figures from the Trussell Trust have claimed.

According to the charity, in 2014-15 foodbanks fed 1,084,604 people nationwide. Of those helped, 396,997 were children.

My husband and I have seen first-hand the need for foodbanks in our local area. At the beginning of 2015, we set one up in our local church and it has been used nearly every week.

We have people who are homeless coming throughout the week for a meal and for some items to tide them over for the next few weeks until they can return. We have families where both parents have lost their jobs and are unable to get back into work - largely because of inherent ageism that, while illegal, is still prevalent. We have families moving into sheltered accommodation or those struggling with small benefits payments.

As with most foodbanks, we have a once-a-month limit unless it is a family we know are in absolutely desperate need, and will always direct people to Citizen's Advice for debt advice or to the local council foodbanks and help centres.

What we have learned from running the foodbank is the following:

  1. The people with the least money are always the most generous in giving good quality food and items
  2. People who have struggled in the past are more likely to be regular, generous donors
  3. There is always a need for nappies - and in the right size. 
  4. Women using the foodbank need to have feminine hygiene stuff discreetly placed into their bags
  5. It is no point giving a homeless person food that needs to be heated up in an oven. Provide food that can be eaten 'as is'.
  6. Not all families eat bog-standard Western food. Provide plenty of canned vegetables, beans, chickpeas, lentils, rice, etc.
  7. Long-life milk is essential
  8. Don't forget to provide toothpaste and toothbrushes
  9. Always make sure the food has a long shelf life - and use up food in chronological order
  10. Always give the best. Do not give out of date food. Do not give 'basics' food. People in need have no choice but to use what you give them. So give them the best - what they could not afford. 

It has been heartbreaking to hear some of the stories - and to have someone you know well come alongside you and explain in private tones of a huge financial struggle they've kept from other people in the church for months. So when you give, give on the premise that, but for the grace of God, you could be in this situation. 

It is sad that foodbanks have to exist. Terrible to think that from 90,000 users under Labour there are now more than 1m under the Tories having to go to foodbanks. But sadly this is the reality...