Saturday, 26 November 2016

I'm a contractor - get me out of here

It's two months since I started my new job.  On the plus side:  it's closer to home so my mileage/fuel consumption is considerably less, they're paying me a reasonable rate, the job is (finally) keeping me busy and they are really nice people.  It's also very obvious that the Big-Boss-In-Charge-Of-Everything is not an absolute bastard.  There is considerably less stress floating around than in my previous company.  No stress puppies here.

On the downside, I'm a contractor.  I have no job security and I don't really have a role.  I'm picking up the pieces of things that others in the team haven't had time to do.  It took weeks for me to get busy and I don't know how long it will last.  I have also been battling a series of almost-colds - mainly sore throats - for the last six weeks, which makes me paranoid about getting something more serious because the job could evaporate if I got really ill.  (Yes, I have had this year's flu jab.).  At least my company now has money in it.

Yes, I now own a company.  In the UK, you have to contract through a company - either your own or an employment agency's.  It's the law.  Setting up a company is easy and cheap. The Companies House website will guide you through the process and charge you £12 for the privilege.  (We used to charge £200 for a company when I was in practice.)  Registering the company for corporation tax can be done at the same time.  Even registering the company for payroll taxes is a piece of cake (although I'm still waiting - a month later - for the payment docs so that I can actually pay said taxes).  HMRC even offer free payroll software that reports your numbers automatically to them.  

Setting up a company bank account, on the other hand was a a palaver that I would never want to relive.  It took over a month.  And that was to open an account at a bank with which I have had a 25 year relationship.  (I even own their shares!)   In the old days, you'd rock up to the bank with your company's Certificate of Registration, some ID, have an interview with the manager and that'd be it.  These days, everything is handled  online and by a call centre.  Nowhere on the paperwork is anything that asks you about your prior relationship with the bank; as a result, I had to prove my identity and my residency status twice.  To do that, I had to go into a branch and get them to photocopy my docs before they send them off via their internal post - a process that surprised at least one branch employee.  Why the hell they couldn't just do the vetting and the forms in the first place is beyond me.  It would have saved so much time and effort.

I finally got the bank account set up in time to pay myself my first salary at the end of October, and I'll pay myself again next week.  The payroll docs situation is equally frustrating, because I'm currently relying on guesstimating how much my take home pay should be, with a bit of help from the folks at .  Included in my calculations is an employee contribution to a pension fund* that equals what I paid in my old job and I'd like to bring that up to £1,000 a month, with the employer's contributions, but until I can run a draft payroll and test everything, I won't know for certain whether that is too much.  As well has having enough left over to actually pay the Taxman, I have to leave sufficient cash in the company to pay myself holiday pay and sick leave (if necessary).  And, of course, keep paying me after the job ends. Yes,  I can't claim unemployment benefits if the job ends, because I'm still an employee of my company.  (Grrr..... I can only go "on the dole" if the company winds up.).

The other reason I'm undecided about whether I like being a contractor is IR35.  IR35 is the Inland Revenue regulation governing "personal service companies" like mine.  The basic principle behind it is that directors of these companies are effectively employees of the companies with which they have a contract so, therefore, they should pay payroll taxes to the same level as if they were directly employed, instead of paying out their earnings via dividends at much lower taxes.  This is my first close contact with IR35 -  it was implemented in the year 2000, so post-dates my time working in the contractor unit at SL.  (Twenty years ago,  I spent a year doing the VAT and accounts for 300-odd computer and engineering contractors.  This was my first job as a trainee accountant.).   I think the rules are quite straightforward but, we'll see if I get tripped up.

In the meantime, I must be the only person in the country who is looking forward to a letter from the Taxman.  Come on HMRC.

- Pam

* UK equivalent of an American 401K or Australian Superannuation.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

I have a job!

(Greetings from God's own county, Yorkshire, where I'm on holiday and visiting friends.  I may publish some photos with comentary later but, firstly, some good news!)

I have a job and will be starting on Monday.  At least three agencies mentioned one particular engineering company to me, saying they were expanding.  It was serendipity.  Not only had they purchased the highway's maintenance division of one of my earlier employers (WSA) in 2013 but, in a twist of fate, my new boss very nearly became my boss at WSA 10 years ago.  I left WSA in December 2006.  My old boss resigned in April 2007 and my new boss (NB) took that job, working there until he was made redundant.

Actually, I think that is why I got an interview.  NB didn't have a vacancy to fill but he wanted to meet the woman who was responsible for implementing a certain billing system in his old business when he saw it on my CV.  In fact, it was one of the first things he mentioned.  I jokingly apologised, saying "Yes, it was all my fault" before mentioning that while I'd scoped out the parameters, tested the system and parallel run the system, it was RD who had tailored it for us from the original system he'd built for a rail joint venture.  I gave credit where credit was due, which seemed to impress him.

In most respects, it was more of a chat than an interview.  This was a sounding out, similar in many ways with the first interview I had at my most recent employer.  (When they first saw me, they didn't have a job to fill either but they liked me so found me a project.).  I was asked questions about what I'd done and my skills, along the lines of "We may need to do xxx.  Can you do that?".  We also discussed the business and the UK divisions.   We talked about their safety culture and how it intermeshed with the one I'd worked in for nearly 10 years.  I asked about their performance metrics (Yay!  They don't use billability.).  By the time I left their offices, I was sure I had a job if they could figure out how to justify it.  (In fact, as he showed me out, the second interviewer told me that if it was down to him, he'd offer me one on the spot.).

The job offer, when it came through, was for an initial three month contract.  Given that they didn't really have a vacancy, just a lot of tasks that need doing, this makes some sense.  They really want to secure my services for something.  I don't know my job title or what I'll be doing.  They actually wanted me to start on the 12th - even though I had holidays booked for this week (last week of September) - but I had to get my permanent residency visa updated to a biometric one, thanks to new legislation, so my start has been delayed.

Wish me luck on Monday.

- Pam

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Tales of the Unemployed

If we aren't connected on Facebook then, chances are, you won't have heard my latest news.  My job finished on 5th August.  I was "restructured" out of the company.  It wasn't my choice;  I wasn't given much notice; and the business I looked after didn't have any say in the matter.  In fact, I had to break the news to their senior management.  (Being Finance, the line management that determines your fate and the people for whom you are actually working are frequently totally disconnected.)

Dark, God bless him, came down from Manchester to ensure I wasn't alone on my last day, took me out to lunch and made sure my sense of self didn't feel too battered. He is the most wonderful friend.  With his unerring sense of timing, he'd phoned me just after I'd got home on the day my boss broke the news to me and I cried all over him.  

It was the end of a brutal couple of weeks.  Definitely, the hardest part about leaving was saying goodbye to people.    Because I'm me (and conscientious), I wrote handover notes for whomever will pick up the work afterwards, and I made sure my business boss (Our Man in the Middle East) has copies.  I handed over my projects to someone I can trust to look after them properly.  I couldn't just walk out the door, leaving people who depended on me in the lurch.  (My line manager, on the other hand....)

Since then, I've spent the last two weeks licking my wounds and trying to figure out a way forward.  I have never not worked.  The plan of attack has been:-

  1.  Update my CV, which I hadn't done since 2011.  It's been drafted and redrafted, and then summarised.  (The latter was the hardest part, so I enlisting the help of a friend who writes CV's for the National Careers' Service. Thanks Eva.)  
  2. Updated LinkedIn.  At some point over the last few years, they deleted the job details I'd laboriously put up in ?2012, leaving only the headline job titles.
  3. Signed on with the DWP/Job Centre.  No, I don't need the derisory £73 per week they'll be paying me as contribution based Job Seeker's Allowance but this was a point of principle.  I've paid into the system for 27 years, I'm entitled to the money.  Also, I want the NI "stamps" that come with it, which will go towards my state pension.  (I will probably rant about this in another post, later.)
  4. Contacting agencies.  I have contacts at several so have been gradually dropping them all emails.   Two are putting me forward for jobs as I type;  a third, I shall see next week. I spent Friday morning meeting with three recruiters at the one agency, who were really positive about the job market for accountants in the Thames Valley.
  5. Working out how to eek out my payoff.  I've got savings and a reasonable payoff coming to me a the end of the month, but my "hope for the best, plan for the worst" conscience tells me it could take considerably longer than I expect to find a new job that will pay me what I think I'm worth.  I've shut down everything I can think of:  the ISA savings; the share investments; the money being set aside for holidays; Audible subscription, etc.   The only things I'm committed to contributing to are the joint account for the mortgage/household bills and the housekeeping.  I reckon I can eek the payoff out to last a year without having to sell off any shares or raid my existing savings.
  6. Working out what do with the money.   Beyond picking a savings account into which to shove it all for now, this is still at the daydream stage.  Each month, I'll transfer back the minimum I need to pay my share of the household expenses.  As to whatever is left after I get a new job, well, at the moment, I'm tempted to put it all into an FTSE100 tracker.
  7. Spending my profits from the Employee Share Save Scheme.  Under the rules of the scheme, I had to either sell or transfer my shares from the scheme manager when I left the company. I'm currently sitting on a 44% profit so have decided to sell.  As agreed with DH, this profit will be my "mad" money, to spend without inhibition on whatever I fancy.  I'm thinking of spending it on a multi-fuel stove for the lounge, a new "fake Aga" for the kitchen (my beloved stove is 16 and showing its age), and getting my sewing machine serviced.  Probably not what he had in mind, when he suggested I have some mad money, but hey...
  8. Figuring out what to do with my days.  This is actually quite hard.  I don't know how to be "a housewife".   I have never been unemployed.   I've been in continuous employment since 1992.   Even when I didn't have a job before then, I did agency nursing.  Without the Olympics or the European Football Championships to keep me entertained (as they did when I was stuck at home with my foot), day time television is mindblowingly boring.   I've started a daily To Do List, just so that I don't become completely zombified by TV and, instead, actually achieve some things.
- Pam

Saturday, 9 July 2016

What would I do if....

As you know, I'm working from home while waiting for my foot to heal.  Since I find myself sitting and staring at the inevitable "save" icon on the work laptop for what feels like forever, multiple times during the work day, my thoughts wander off to more interesting topics like knitting.  (It's better than thinking about food and recipes - that inevitably just makes me hungry.)  

One of the mental games I play runs, "What would I do if....", the knitting version of which is "How and what would I knit if I were broke?".  Now, in reality, I have a large stash and if I were broke, I could knit from it for about a decade and (possibly) with the exception of sock yarn, still have multiple-garments-worth of yarn left at the end of it.  I have more than enough yarn.  I am seriously contemplating selling some of it to make some space and because it is highly unlikely I will ever knit with it (the pink and the blue Sublime Angora Merino DK if you are interested).  So let's wind the clock back ten-or-so years, before the stash grew large and contemplate how and what I'd knit if I were broke and didn't have much of a stash.

(This version of the game started because ages ago, on a frugality discussion board somewhere - not TMF - someone remarked that she couldn't afford to knit with "real wool" only with acrylic.  Her next comment, which was aimed squarely at me, was that since I could "afford" wool, I obviously didn't need to be on a frugality discussion board.  I think I replied that it was precisely because of the tips and tricks I'd picked up that I could afford to knit with wool, that most of my yarn was purchased at a deep discount from the likes of Black Sheep Yarns and that I saved £5/month for my knitting.  Anyhow, I digress. Let's play the game...)

How and what would I knit if I were broke?  

For a start, I'd knit whatever yarn I had in the house, until it ran out. I'd dig it all out, pile it on the bed and work out what I could do with it.  Even when I only shopped for the next garment to be knitted and not for the stash, there were always balls and ends of balls of yarn left over after whatever was knitted was finished.  There would probably be enough for at least a couple of hats, some fingerless mitts and a pair or two of my use-em-up socks.  Any short lengths could be crocheted into granny squares - it's about time I learned to do one.  (No, even though I've been crocheting all my life, I've never made one.)

In the meantime, while I was busy knitting up the odds and ends, I'd try to save for the next garment.  Surely I could squeeze £2 a week out of the budget?    Three 100g balls of 4-ply sock yarn is approximately 1200 metres, which  is more than enough to make a vintage sweater like the Jan Sweater, which is at least a month's knitting (  There are plenty of free patterns out there, which you can find via Ravelry.  Since I'm using 4-ply, I'd start by searching the library for patterns listed on Trove (the National Library of Australia online archive of vintage knitting patterns). is another place I'd look.

Then onto the yarn.  King Cole Zig Zag is reasonable to knit, consists of 75% wool:25% nylon, would give you 420m a ball and is currently on sale via Amazon for £4.79 plus £2.49 p&p, so £16.86 for yarn for an entire sweater.  You may even be able to get a short sleeved sweater out of two balls.  The hardest part will be trying to find a source that sells plain colours.

Alternatively, if I'd saved up just a little more, I could get three balls of West Yorkshire Spinners Signature 4-ply, 75% wool:25% nylon, quality British grown and spun yarn, direct from the spinners for £7.20 a ball plus £2.60 p&p, a total of  £24.20.  That is a premium product with 30% BFL for less than £25, including p&p. I know which one I'd prefer.  

Problem solved, yes?

- Pam

Friday, 1 July 2016

Headless chicken syndrome

In the quiet moments during the day while I'm working from home, when it takes 5 minutes to open or save a file, I've been listening to podcasts.  Always, after they download, the BBC money ones - and Kermode* - get queued to "Play next"**.   The money podcasts I listen to are:  Money Box, Money Box Live (a phone in mid-week edition of the show) and 5 Live Consumer Team with Martin Lewis.  

Over the last week, the on-going theme for all three of them has been Brexit and what on earth happens to our personal finances now.  The headless chicken appears to have taken over, with the most frequently asked questions boiling down to:-

1).  I was going to buy a house or remortgage but, with Brexit, should I wait?  What happens if I don't wait?  Will I lose all my money?  (Answer:  don't wait.  You need a roof over your head.  If your personal economics were right two weeks ago, ie you could afford the mortgage and you were sensibly fixing it for a few years, then nothing has changed.)

2).  I have money in the stock market, either directly invested, through a unit trust or a pension scheme.  The stock market fell after Brexit.  What do I do now?  I've lost "money".  Do I sell up?   (Answer:  the stock market moves all the time and is now back to the level it was at two months ago.  You haven't lost any money unless you sell, which is when you crystallise your paper losses.  (Incidentally, the market promptly bounced up again, that afternoon.))

Frankly, if the headless chicken continues, people will talk Britain into a recession, long before we even start the process of leaving the EU.  It will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  It's a vicious cycle  People will sell their shares, causing a run on the stock market, crystallising their losses.  They'll then stop shopping and stop eating out because they feel poor, which in turn will mean less money coming in to local businesses, which in turn means they'll have to start laying people off and eventually may have to shut up shop, potentially defaulting on loans in the process.  That, in turn, will lead to landlords going bust, which means more loan defaults.  The banks will get stressed out and stop loaning money.  More unemployment leads to more people on benefits which also leads to less money being spent in the economy, which means more businesses going out of business.... And so on, and so on.

As things stand, we don't know what will happen re Europe.  My bet is on us joining the European Economic Area, a la Norway, which means that we have to sign up to almost everything except shared sovereignty, the common agricultural policy, the common fisheries policy and certain VAT, tax and tariff regimes.   All that is in the future, however, because the one BIG problem with Brexit is that no credible alternative policies were put forward by the Leave campaign, even by those who technically are still in the government. 

Into the void has stepped an awful lot of speculation and panic.  Last weekend, the only person talking any sense was Martin Lewis: , with whom I totally agree.

If the headless chicken comes anywhere near me, he's soup!

- Pam

* The Kermode and Mayo Film Review, which is a download of the live, BBC Radio 5 program with anything up to another 45 minutes of them wittering on before and after the show.  I started listening to them broadcasting live on a Friday back in 2008, on my long 200+ mile drives home from Site.  Now, even when I catch part of the live show, I will also download and listen to the Podcast in order to hear all the extras.

**The Podcast App on the iPhone has this wonderful, on going ability to build a playlist.  You can queue "Play next" - and it will play immediately after the current podcast finishes - or "Add to up next", which puts whatever you are queuing to the back of your playlist.  

Sunday, 26 June 2016

The aftermath

The best thing to happen to me in the last week, is that I went to Fracture Clinic on Wednesday and they gave me a boot!

I can now stand and walk without crutches!  I am mobile again.  Yay!  Can't drive until after my next Fracture Clinic appointment on 20th July, though.

The worst thing that happened?  Well, unless you've been living under a media blackout, you can probably guess what it is: Britain voted to leave the EU.  

Brexit.  What an absolute economic disaster. My fellow residents of the U.K. voted for a recession.  They voted for the Pound to tank against other currencies.  They voted for the price of petrol to increase.  They voted for inward investment to cease.  They voted for jobs and manufacturing to transfer to other parts of Europe.  They voted for food prices to double.  

Woah there!  I can hear my Australian and American friends going "Hang on.... Food prices to double?"  It doesn't sound comprehensible, does it?  The fact of the matter is that Britain has not been self-sufficient in food since before the First World War.  And I'm not talking grain.  Prior to WW2, Britain imported 60% of its fresh produce.  It still does. The vast majority of what goes on most people's tables comes from other parts of the EU.  Another slab comes from as far afield as Kenya (strawberries) or Egypt (potatoes).  Go food shopping in a supermarket in France or Spain or the Netherlands and you'll be hard pressed to find any produce that wasn't grown "in country" - the reverse is true here. 

Well, say the Brexitiers, at least we won't be wasting money on the Common Agricultural Policy, subsidising farmers to produce butter mountains.  It's an expensive waste of money, isn't it? Throughout the years I have lived in the UK, I have heard stories/complaints about the Common Agricultural policy:  the butter mountains; the inefficiencies (keeping small farms alive instead of allowing them to go to the wall and be absorbed into agribusiness conglomerations); the abuses (Italy claiming to have more land producing tomatoes than its entire landmass); paying farmers to leave land fallow (so that biodiversity is preserved), etc...  

I have always thought that they missed the point: the reason the Common Agricultural Policy exists in the first place is food security.  It was devised when the memories of the famines and food shortages that followed WW2 were fresh in people's minds.  People remembered starving. They starved before and during the War too.  Germany remembered the great inflation of the 1920's, when the price of bread could double within an hour.  France, Belgium and the Netherlands remembered starving during the War too, when the occupying Nazis employed the policy of feeding their war machine first, Der Vaterland second and the plebs third.  With starvation fresh in your memory, wouldn't you subsidise farming to ensure food security?

I fully expect food prices to double in the next two years. Mark my words.  It won't just be due to the Pound falling in value against the Euro, either.   Britain is dependent on Europe for most of its foodstuffs.  Right now, the other nations in the EU sell food to us on the same basis as they sell it internally - no tariffs; no additional taxes.  Now, they will have a choice:  sell internally to the other 26 countries, or put a tariff on and sell to the UK, who desperately want your food and are ripe to be milked...

Britain needs the EU far more than the EU needs Britain. 

- Pam

Friday, 17 June 2016

I broke it.

I am a stubborn sod. Ten days ago, I slipped in the ground floor lift foyer at work, twisting my right ankle and wrenched my foot. I can’t walk on it. I spent a large portion of that evening sitting with my foot elevated, sporting a bag of peas while stubbornly thinking “It will be better in the morning”. It wasn’t so I went to A&E in morning. It turns out that I have a footballer’s injury – I have an avulsion fracture of the fifth tarsal (basically my foot muscles pulled a chip off the ankle end of the long bone on the outside of the foot).

The thing is: I knew that I'd broken something within about a minute but I didn't want to admit it. The Thursday  was meant to be a day working in London followed by the T20 cricket at the Oval, and I didn't want to miss that. I was on my way out to dinner with a really good friend who I don't see often enough and didn't want to waste a precious evening in the Royal Berks. (Also, where would I park?). I kept telling myself that it'd wear off; it was only when I put weight on it that it hurt. It didn't hurt to drive; it didn't hurt when I was sitting; surely it would wear off? 

Only it didn't. I knew I wouldn't get to the cricket before I left Reading. Walking from my parked car to the house nearly had me in tears - the deciding vote for A&E. I left it until the morning only because I have worked in A&E and know that mornings are quiet, so you get seen relatively quickly.

While it doesn't hurt much unless I lose my balance and stand on it, the past ten days have been exercises in frustration.  I have crutches but am about as manoeuvrable as a lump of coal with them.   I can’t use them and carry anything.  This turns everything into a production number, when I’m home alone.  Every step has to be thought out.  For example, to make a cup of coffee I have to hop with my crutches to the kitchen cupboard to get a coffee cup, propping one crutch up nearby to free up one hand;  stretch to put it down on the kitchen table; hop with crutches to the other side of the table, where I can reach the kettle without stretching and the coffee;  reach over to get the cup so that I can pour in the water, etc;  push it back to the other side of the kitchen table then hop back round to reach the fridge to get the milk, etc.  All the while, trying to balance on one foot and one crutch because I’ve had to put the other down so that I can hold whatever-it-is while in transit before I can put it on the table.

I'm lucky that a) I have a  portable office (laptop) and can work from home, and b) that I managed to break my foot just at the start of the Euro2016 football championships.  Both have helped me stay sane!  I would die of boredom if my days were just me and the television, waiting for Gerald to get home.  Beyond "Homes Under the Hammer", there is nothing worth watching on daytime TV.  (I have a few things stashed on the DVR but not enough to last me.)  

My ears shut off when i concentrate, so there's no point having anything on in the background while I'm working but when I'm not and there's no football, I'm mainly listening to podcasts from the BBC:  Moneybox; Kermode and Mayo's Film Review; Costing the Earth; Ramblings; Open Book; WS More or Less (who are doing a fascinating series on how statistics are used and abused during the Euro Referendum).  The knitting podcasts I'm listening to include:  Knitmore Girls; Knit British; Caithness Craft Collective; iMake (back-episodes only since she's stopped recording); Shineybees; Stash and Burn; CogKnitive.

I have a fracture clinic appointment on Wednesday.  Hopefully, they will give me some idea how much longer this will go on. 

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Enough is enough

This is the story of a pair of socks....

You may remember the craze for Jaywalkers, at one point it seemed that every knitting blogger/podcaster on the planet were making a pair. ( Ravelry tells me that I knitted my Jaywalker Socks in 2011.  They were pretty:

I remember casting on the 76 stitches and thinking, this is an awful lot of stitches for someone like me with a size five foot (size 7 US/Australian), but the pattern mentioned that there was very little give in the fabric and that someone "with a high arch" (not me) might struggle to get the socks on over their heels.    Little did I realise then that putting the damn things on would be a battle every single time that I wore them.  Since I wear hand-knitted socks to work virtually every day, they became the last-choice-in-the-drawer socks.  Still, I reckon I must have worn them once a month for the last five years, battling to put them on and take them off 60+ times, until this happened last week:

A hole just below the cuff.  A hole that didn't run, even after I threw the socks in the washing machine. (I'd worn them to work that day.).  A hole that, frankly, I've been expecting ever since the first day I wore these socks back in 2011.   You can't blame the yarn, Supergarne Relax Sport Und Strumpfgarn, it knows how to take a beating.  It put up with an awful lot of hauling and stretching over the years, as well as the usual wear and tear from walking and shoes.  

I looked at the hole, today, and did something I should have done back in 2011.  I gave in to the inevitable, and frogged them.  I cut the toe, wriggling the thread through a few stitches

then ripped and ripped.  The yarn has stood up to wear and tear beautifully.  I hadn't realised just how tight the stitches were - it made quite a noise ripping out - and it's definitely more of a 3-ply now than a four.  Am contemplating giving it a gentle soak in warm water before re-balling it up and knitting it into a nicer pair of socks.

Any pattern suggestions?

- Pam

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Knitting as the wild side

It's been a long time since I've written a knitting post.  You may have noticed that the picture has finally changed in the right side-bar - the previous jumper shown was finished in October 2013!  I've actually knitted three jumpers and a cardigan since then, several hats, multiple pairs of socks, several pairs of fingerless mitts and two Five Hour Baby Sweaters.

I am currently knitting totally off piste.  Oh, I have years of adapting old patterns to fit me but this is different.  The pattern Entertain in This was impossible to adapt. Initially I was astonished to discover that it didn't quote gauge - no mention of a knitting tension at all.  When I read through it, I realised that the reason no gauge was quoted was because all the shaping was done via changing needle sizes, so they'd have to quote at least five different gauges!  Seriously, the needles used range from 2.75mm for the welt to 5mm for the majority of the body.  There is no way on this earth that the Drops Alpaca I'm using would cope with 5mm needles.

Anyway, at that point, I gave up trying to adapt the pattern and decided to just copy the design features:  the frilled collar and cuffs, and the nobbles.  However, when I knitted the nobbles - purl 5 into the stitch on one row, knit 5 together on the next - they didn't show up.  The alpaca halo overwhelmed them.  Time to grit my teeth and try something I've never done before:  knitting in beads.  

(There are two ways to knit with beads:  the first involves threading dozens of the fiddly things onto your knitting yarn and sliding them down it periodically as you knit.  It really only works on small items, or when you have one beaded section, since all the yarn you will knit with will be pulled through the unused beads.  Completely not feasible for a garment or for anything knitted with a halo, upon which the yarn may catch.  I did this method for the first time at a class in October, at the Knit & Stitch Show at Ally Pally.   The second method is something I knew about by repute but I'd never seen it until I looked it up on YouTube:  using a tiny (1mm) crochet hook to pull your next-to-be-knitted stitch through your bead, so that the bead forms a shank on it.  That's what I mean when I say "knitting in beads".)

Much to my surprise, given how beaded knitting is one of the holy grails of knitting, it is easy!  A little fiddly certainly, particularly as the hole in the beads aren't uniform, but really easy.   Pretty, too!  Take a look:

Believe me, it is harder to take a photo that accurately reflects the colour of the yarn than it is to knit in beads!  It's meant to be a dark blue with purple tones.

Neither of these photos are blue enough, although the latter is closer.

- Pam (only one scary knitting technique left to try - entrelac.)

Friday, 1 January 2016

Today is the first day of the rest of your life

Every day is a new start.  The past is prologue - you can't change it but you can change what happens now.  I think that is why we imbue this day, 1st January, with so much importance.  Why else do we make New Year's Resolutions?

Sometimes, I think that is part of the problem.  We give the New Year so much baggage:  "this year, I will be thin"; "this year, I will get straight A's in all my subjects"; "this year, I will get out of debt/earn a fabulous salary/save £100,000" (all while netting £2.50/hour or something similar); "this year, I will meet the man of my dreams", etc.  Frankly the expectation for virtually all New Year's Resolutions is  "this year, I will turn my life around and it will be wonderful from New Year's Day onwards...",  Of course, change can't happen that quickly but, when we get to the second or third week of January and wonderful things haven't happened, we feel like a failure.  Failure is built into the equation from the beginning.
One of my friends posted on Facebook earlier today "Best part of 2016 so far??  Reminding everyone that we have 366 days to make a difference instead of 365.  Make a difference!!!"   This is what I've been pondering all day:  how can I make a difference in 2016, both to my life and to others?  I have decided to set some very specific goals, rather than woolly resolutions, in order to make a difference.

16 Challenges for 2016
1). Run the Sports Relief Mile in Osterley on 20th March.  I've already signed up and Howard has agreed to run it with me.  We've set a modest fund raising target and hope to exceed it.  (I'll post a link closer to the time.). Since I can barely run 100m, this will involve training every workday morning - getting up at 5am - except when I'm travelling.  I will use the app to track my progress, as well as my Fitbit.
2).  £50 February.  Yes, I've decided to try again.  Will you join me?
3).  The weight challenge.  I want my UK size 12 clothes fit me, comfortably.  Right now, some do, some don't. I reckon ending the year weighing 9st10lb or less will do the trick
4).  The strength challenge.  Every workday morning I will do the 7 Minute Workout, which is a free app available for iPhone and iPad (not sure about Android).  I should be able to fit this into my routine after my new daily run.
5). The language challenge.  Resume my daily sessions on Duolingo to learn French.  (I took a break over Christmas.)  It takes about 10 minutes to work my way through the requisite 2 modules a day.
6).  Knit From Stash 2016.  This year, I will not go totally "cold sheep", instead I will limit my purchases to 10 balls of yarn for a sweater and 4 balls of yarn for socks/other presents.
7).  The other knitting challenge: to knit - and finish - four sweaters in 2016.  (This is theoretically possible.  In my most productive year, I knit six.). This will be on top of my regular production of six pairs of socks per annum.
8).  Fashion on the Ration.  Yes, once again, I will try to stick to 66 coupons as dictated by the 1941 clothing regulations.  This covers yarn purchases, too, but not items bought for household use.
9). To get my sewing machine serviced and to use it to make an outfit from my fabric stash.  (Yes, of course, I have a fabric stash.  What were you thinking?)
10).  To read 16 books in 2016.  Should be doable.
11).  The vegetable garden challenge.  I hereby commit to planting seeds in February, for planting out at the end of March.  If that doesn't happen, then I will call this challenge a failure then and be done with it.
12).  To move into the back bedroom and sort out the wardrobe issue.  
13).  To audition for a solo in the ECS 2016 carol concert.   I am a lazy musician.  This will help me be a better one.
14).  The friendship challenge.  I have lots of friends, some of whom I do not see or communicate with very often.  The challenge is to write a personal email to a different friend each month
15).  The entertaining challenge.  In conjunction with challenge 14 above, I want to have friends over for a meal 12 times in 2016.  I am not going to aim for once a month because some months this won't be possible, whereas in others it will be possible to entertain twice.
16).  To blog 16 times in 2016.
What will you do to make a difference in 2016?
- Pam

Thursday, 31 December 2015

SitRep2015: How did I do?

At the end of 2014, in this post, I set myself 15 goals for 2015.  Here is a quick summary of how I did.  (Challenge first then result):-

  1. £50 February.  We nearly made it.  As detailed here, we spent £58.83.  I will definitely try this challenge again.
  2. January is for finishing Projects/WIPS.  This is more difficult to measure because I didn't list the unfinished projects in the original post.  I think they included my Deco cardigan - still needs buttons - and the Woolly Nanette Tee - finished but the ends still need weaving in.   Let's just call this goal a fail and be done with it.
  3. Lose 15lb in 2015.  As detailed here, I succeeded in losing 7lb almost permanently, but I reckon I lost at least 5 of those pounds on 3 separate occasions.  Partial win.
  4. The 2015 Fitness Challenge.  Fail.  I'm still a slug.
  5. The Feed Me Gardening Challenge.  Almost total fail.  Gardening got away from me this year.  The only thing I managed to grow were courgettes and they were from two plants donated by DH's boss.  Maybe next year will be better.
  6. The 2015 Knit from Stash Challenge.  Almost a complete success.  I say almost because I had to buy two extra balls of 4-ply Blue Faced Leicester in order to complete my latest project, It Cannot Fail to Please from A Stitch In Time.  I was really good until October, when  I slipped at the Knit & Stitch Show and purchased two balls of Toft Alpaca Sock, 8 balls of Drops Alpaca and two balls of Jamieson's Soft Shetland.  Only the last has been knitted to date; I used it to make a hat for Dark for Christmas.
  7. The Fashion on the Ration Challenge.  To be honest, while I know I blew this one out in July when I bought a load of lingerie, I stopped tracking before then and don't know how many points I really spent.
  8. Learn French.  I have worked my way through 2 lessons of Duolingo every morning this year and, according to to the app, am now 7% fluent in French.  While I am far from being able to sustain a conversation, I know more French now than I did after four years of classes in high school.  I'll continue with Duolingo in the new year.
  9. To Throw a Fabulous 50th Birthday Party.  Big win.  I had a great party.
  10. To Read and Finish 15 Books in 2015.  Not quite a win.  I read 13 books, not 15.  Virtually every book I've read this year was on the Kindle app on my phone or iPad and a lot of them were free or cheap, thanks to joining the BookBub mailing list.  (I now have hundreds of books thanks to BookBub.)  Please, Amazon, update the app so that we can tag the books we've read and easily find them.   
  11. To move into the back bedroom.  Fail.
  12. The wardrobe challenge.  Fail.  I'm still waiting to make the big trip to IKEA to buy new wardrobes so that we can outfit the back bedroom and move.
  13. To make something of my new job.  Success.  I'm not quite back to the same point as I was with the previous role, but I'm close.  I've made friends with two of the business's senior people and, as of tomorrow, I will have a team of project accountants reporting to me again.
  14. To blog 26 times in 2015.  Fail.  Somehow, though, I remembered the target as 15 times not 26.  Once I post this, it'll be 15 times.
  15. To write that book.  Fail.  Although I have started.  Twice.
So that's a quick review of my 2015.  How did you do with your 2015 resolutions/challenges?  Do tell!

Wishing you a fantastic 2016.

- Pam

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

A lesson learned from a sewing machine

(As you may be aware, I am the proud owner of a Brother sewing machine.  It may be 24 years old now, but it does exactly what I always wanted; among its 21 stitches are a one-step button hole, a special stitch for sewing jersey fabric, takes a double needle, a sort of overlock stitch, etc. While it is in desperate need of a service - one of my 2016 challenges is to get it serviced and then to use it more often - this story isn't about it.  This story is about another sewing machine, not mine...)

I mentioned on Facebook yesterday, one of the few pieces of advice I ever dish out to people, when it comes to possessions, is to buy the one you really want.  If you can't afford it, then wait and keep saving up until you can buy the one that you really want, because if you don't, if you buy something cheaper that "will do", it never does.  You will replace the latter two or three times with another that "will do", because you'll always find a fault with it; and eventually it will cost you double what the original would have cost in the first place.  And you still won't be satisfied because what "will do" is never good enough.

This is a lesson I learned from my mother over a sewing machine.  My mum always wanted a super-duper machine that did amazing embroidery automatically, at the touch of a button.  Embroidery was one of her things, although she seldom did it by the time I was born.  It was too hard on the hands and the eyes.  Looking back I think that what she really wanted to do was make and embellish baby clothes - that was her great love - but it was never something that she pursued once I grew beyond 6 or 7 (I'm the youngest).  Her style for children's clothes was classic mid-20th century:  embroidered and smocked dresses, or velvet with a lace collar (she made lace, too).  It was a look that was well out of fashion by the early 1970's, by the time I was old enough to start to notice fashion.  Anyway, I digress...

The sewing machine was always part of our lives when we were little.  If we needed new clothes, they were home made.  A trip to the shops "for clothes" always ended up in the fabric department, selecting a pattern and some cloth, after we'd made a circuit of women's wear and children's wear.  Like knowing how to crochet, I do not remember learning to use the sewing machine or getting lessons on laying out a pattern on fabric, etc.  These are things I have always known, things I learned almost by osmosis.

The other place we would always visit would be the sewing machine department.  Mum would chat to the demonstrators, always checking out the latest models, occasionally giving them a test ride.  In the late 1970's, there were a couple of big home exhibitions at the Exhibition Buildings in Melbourne.  I remember wandering around them for hours with mum, always stopping at the stands run by the sewing machine manufacturers: Singer, Janome, Huskvana, Bernina, Pfaff.  (Oddly enough, I don't remember ever seeing a Brother machine.). We always looked at the high-end embroidery models:  some were confined to built in programs that were selected from a dial; others took an infinite number of cams that you dropped into a slot, which were expensive optional extras.  I remember Singer making the latter.  The machine mum lusted after, though, was the Pfaff:  it had multiple push-button programs and she was convinced that you could combine designs by pushing two-or-more buttons together at once.  

(Remember, this was before computers took over the world. Everything was mechanical or manual. (As an aside, one of the first conversations I ever had about computing was to discuss whether you could program a computer to drive a sewing machine to embroider a picture.  She'd got to me, too.))

Anyway, as I said, mum really wanted a Pfaff sewing machine.  Even if she didn't get one that did all the whizz-bang, you-beaut embroidery, she still wanted a Pfaff.  As far as she was concerned, they were the BMW of the sewing machine world:  German precision engineering, heavy duty but elegant and a dream to use.  They were also expensive, probably the most expensive sewing machines on the market at that time.  I don't remember the exact costs now, however I'd guess a top-of-the-range model was more than my dad's take-home wages for a month.

Somewhere along the line, mum convinced herself that her old, 1960-edition sewing machine just wasn't good enough.  If it wasn't the stitches, then it was too light weight for the type of sewing she wanted to do.   (Built into its own sewing table/case, it would literally bounce about if you went too fast.). That was her argument, anyway.  During my teenage years, she talked herself into replacing that machine. Twice.  Neither replacement was good enough.  Since she kept the original, I remember doing a direct comparison: beyond having a free arm (the original had a flat bed), there was virtually nothing the new machines offered that the original couldn't do; maybe a one-step button hole, but that was it.  (Frankly, though, as long as your machine can do zig-zag and change the length and width of its stitches, it can do a button hole.  I learned how to do that on the old machine.). If they had fancy embroidery stitches, I never saw them being used.  

I have absolutely no recollection of what was wrong with the second machine, that convinced her to purchase the third.  All I can tell you is that she continued to lust after a Pfaff.  Here's the heart of the matter:  mum couldn't bring herself to spend that bit extra on the Pfaff she always wanted and the substitutes never matched up.    

They weren't cheap machines, but individually each wasn't as costly as a Pfaff.  Collectively, however, she spent more on them than she would have done on the Pfaff she really wanted.  I remember discussing it with my dad, who found the whole thing as frustrating as I did.  Yes, Pfaffs were expensive.  No, they didn't have a lot of spare money to throw around.  However, if it doesn't match up to your expectations, why bother buying it?  Dad was prepared to spend the money, but mum would not.  In his mind and mine, mum already had an "it will do" machine, so if you weren't going to buy the one you really wanted, with all the bells and whistles on it, why bother?  Why not just continue to save until she could get the Pfaff?

This is when I learned an important life lesson:  if there is something you really, really want, don't try to make do with an "almost as good as but cheaper" substitute.  It will never do.  You will always find fault with the substitute.  Keep saving your cash until you can get the one you really want*.  I have no problem with you buying a cheap-as-chips "temporary" substitute/second-hand model if you absolutely need that piece of equipment**, but don't fork out two-thirds of the price of the one you really want on something that doesn't add up and then moan about it for years afterwards.  

Certainly, expensive isn't always better.  However, don't settle for something on the "it will do" basis when clearly it won't.  Just don't do it.  

- Pam

* Why do you think I waited and saved for years for a top-of-the-range-at-the-time iPhone?   It did exactly what I wanted, had a good camera and came with the most data storage.  (When it comes to computing, always buy the biggest storage.)   At that point, it's predecessor was 8 years old BUT 8 years earlier, pre-iPhone-invention, the predecessor was the exact phone I wanted so I was happy to wait.

** Of course, after using your "temporary" model for a while, you may decide that it is perfect for your needs and you don't actually want the other one after all.  At least you'll have found out without spending a fortune.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Excuses, excuses... No excuses.

The other day at work, while I was zapping my lunch, I plugged my meal into the app, and  I found myself musing on the various times I'd counted calories or kept food diaries of one version or another.  While large portions of my life have been completely diet free, every so often in the last 10 years, I've gritted my teeth and tried (again) to lose the 15lb of fat that settled around my waist after my thyroid packed in.  Virtually every attempt involved some sort of tracker.

I was an overweight kid, probably carrying 2 stone more than I should have been by the time I was 11 or 12. (One stone = 14lb = 6kg.) I think the very first time I tried to diet was when I was 13 and my mum had bought a Weight Watchers' cookbook, which amazingly included details of the entire original Plan.  On that occasion, I ruled up a few pages in an exercise book, to act as my menu/meal tracker.  It was filled in on the first morning then abandoned.  Keeping track of Weight Watchers portions was too much like hard work, particularly since I had to keep referring back to the cookbook, which was too big to carry with me.

A couple of months later, I found a "model" diet in Dolly magazine and tried that.  A modelling school and agency - I forget which - gave it to the magazine; it was the diet they dished out to all their potential models. The selling point was "lose a stone in two weeks".  All I can remember is that most meals consisted of two eggs, half a grapefruit and spinach.  Not being much of a cook at the age of 14, I mainly hard boiled the eggs and boiled the spinach, which was disgusting.  Making a frittata never occurred to me. 

Then there was some terrible yoghurt and bran diet, which I devised myself.  (Don't ask.)  I must has been 15 by then and working on the theory that yoghurt was low in calories, full of calcium and protein, while the bran would fill me up. That lasted a couple of days.  Not only did it taste horrible, but I was hungry the entire time,  No wonder the word diet became associated in my mind with suffering through terrible tasting meals.

By the time I was 19, I'd given up on diets completely.  They were far too much like self-imposed torture for no reward.  The only thing that I tried to do, food wise, was to eat healthily:  more of the dreaded vegetables (I hated vegetables), high in fibre and low fat (anyway, greasy food gave me horrible irritable bowel syndrome cramps).  Gradually, I learned to like vegetables.  I did lose weight but it was almost by accident, and my weight stabilised at about 10st (140lb).  For a long time, I didn't even own a set of scales.

Fast forward to 1991, when I was working for a certain cosmetic surgery company, as a cross between office admin and operating theatre nurse. They decided that there was money to be made in diets, so sent me as a spy to a rival clinic.  The diet I was given that day was all about quantities and choices.  It was not prescriptive - as long as I didn't exceed the stated amounts, I could eat anything I chose. No menu plan. No "it's Tuesday, therefore you can only have 5 eggs and a head of lettuce". It was easy, straightforward and, after a day or so, I decided "I can stick with this".  Religiously, I tracked everything I ate, wrote it all down so that I could reproduce the diet meals later on.  While the company paid for the first visit, I paid for the rest.  I went back every week for 13 weeks and lost 2 stone in the process.  For the only time in my life, I achieved the magic goal weight of 8st 4lb.  

It didn't last, but my weight stabilised at a perfectly acceptable 9st 2lb and UK size 12 for the following 6 years.  It was only when I started living on Chinese takeaway, after we'd moved house and my first marriage was falling apart that I began putting the pounds back on.  By the turn of the millennium, I was 12 stone and the heaviest I have ever been.  

I managed to shed some pounds, once DH and I started living together but I was still over 11st when we started planning our wedding in 2003.  At the advice of some friends, I resorted to Weight Watchers.  While I counted points, based on the then Plan and pointed up most of my recipes, I basically followed the same program as I had in 1991.  The need to be accountable was the main reason I attended meetings.  I wrote everything up and pointed it all in the weekly food diary sheets we were given. I carried the program handbook in my handbag and referred to it often for points values.  I even joined the website. It worked, too.  I was slim at the wedding and became a gold member weighing 9st 2lb.

Less than a year later, I had shingles and the resultant autoimmune response wiped out my thyroid.  The inevitable result of hypothyroidism was weight gain.  I ballooned up to 10st 10lb, but this time the weight primarily went around my waist   I returned to Weight Watchers in 2007, stuck it out for the best part of 9 months and got back to 9st 10lb.  When I lapsed, the lesson I learned very quickly was that it took very little over-eating to put on weight.  Living for a week, once a month, in a hotel at site did it.  By the time the Project left site in 2011, I was back at 11st.  

When I returned to Weight Watchers, the program had changed.  Everything needed to be pointed up again.  I downloaded the app to my phone but it was frustratingly clumsy.  I tried logging into the website every day - at one point, whenever I opened Internet Explorer, it would automatically log straight into the tracker pages on the Weight Watchers website.  Again I found it very frustrating. I'd track for a week or so and then lapse.  Heaven help you if you ate out - although Weight Watchers continued to publish their Eating Out guide in paper format, it was impossible to find the same information out digitally.  For several years, I kept trying to make the new Weight Watchers program work for me and kept failing.  Eventually, in 2014, I gave up completely and resigned my membership of the website, cancelling my monthly subscription.

I don't remember when I downloaded the app to my iPhone.  I do know that in September 2014, I had a play with it, thinking that so long as I counted calories, I might achieve something.  As weight loss tools go, it has been a revelation: it is a calorie counter:  not only can you plug in your recipes and count their calories, it has a database that stores details of millions of preprepared foods and thousands of restaurant dishes.  It is an exercise tracker, interacting with dozens of fitness apps and tools, like my Fitbit.  It can even be turned into a pedometer, if I forget to put the Fitbit on.  It was everything that the Weightwatchers app, etc, wasn't.  It is easy.  It is non-judgemental and every day starts with a clean slate.

You may remember that, as part of my 15-goals-in-2015, I challenged myself to lose 15lb this year.  Most days, I have tracked my food and my footsteps in and it hasn't been a hassle.  I didn't make goal, but I didn't fail too badly,  On 5 January, when I weighed myself upon our return from Miami, I weighed 10st 10lb.  A month ago, I weighed 10st 3lb.  At my lowest point this year, I was 10st 2lb.  I haven't weighed myself in December so a 7lb weight loss for the year will have to do. It has had a visible effect on my body.  People have noticed and commented.  I'm back wearing most of my size 12 clothing.  Next year, I will try to lose the final 8lb.

- Pam

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Thoughts on friendship

I had lunch yesterday with a very dear friend, someone I absolutely adore but don't see these days on a regular basis.  It brought home to me a few things:-

1). Good friends can pick up their conversations where they left off, even if it's been weeks apart.

2). Friendship is about sharing your lives, your hopes and your dreams.   You need never worry about sharing the latter with a true friend. They will help you clarify your dreams, not laugh at them.

3). There is no such thing as TMI in a conversation with someone you are really close to.

4). When you really  love your friends, tell them. Life is fragile.  They deserve to know.  There is nothing nicer than the feeling you get when you know you are loved by someone - it is like being wrapped in a hug.

- Pam

Friday, 10 July 2015

My Favourite Toy

There's something I have been meaning to rave about it on the Blog for ages.   Do you remember back in the 1980's/1990's, when you'd read science fiction books and the hero/heroine would reach for their "communicator" or "link" to look up something on the computer?  Or to make a video call/read a document/watch TV?  Or to record something?  I remember wistfully thinking "I wish I had one of those!".  Well, four years ago, I got one - I purchased my first iPhone - and, as far as I am concerned, my iPhone is the Best. Toy. Ever!   I use it for everything.

Really, I do. I currently have a 64GB iPhone 5, bought a year ago, and there's less than 10GB free.  As well as making calls or sending text messages via my phone network, I access my bank from it; quickly surf the internet to find out or confirm something; read my latest book via Kindle at lunchtime; chat to Our Man in the Middle East via WhatsApp;  chat to my sister in Australia for free on Viber.  It's my primary camera and stores most of my music.  I've written blogs on it (although the Blogger App is a bit clumsy).  I talk to friends and family on Facebook; visit Ravelry for knitting inspiration; download and listen to podcasts, as well as audio books while I drive.  Every morning, you'll find me doing my daily French lesson on Duolingo (which is free).   There are exercise programs I attempt follow (look out for the free 7-Minute Workout and RunKeeper).  For calorie counting, I use My Fitness Pal.   I use the BBC apps all the time, including iPlayer and iPlayer radio.

So much of what I use on the iPhone is free.  As well as podcasts, most of the 100+ Kindle books I have were free via BookBub (or discounted to 99p).  All the BBC content is free.  As is Duolingo and the Learn French videos on youtube.

The only thing that detracts from my iPhone is the network.  A year ago,  when I upgraded to the iPhone 5, I switched to Vodafone and I'm not impressed. Can't get a consistent signal anywhere.  Can't get a signal at all for large tranches of the day in my office - never had a problem with my old network - and even in the centre of London I've had problems.   I am counting the days until I can break the contract.

Excuse me.  I'm off to play with my Toy.

- Pam