Thursday, February 24, 2011


I’m doing a college course at the moment and one of the requirements is that I put together and deliver a five-minute presentation on a subject of my choice. It mustn’t be work related. Five minutes is a scarily short amount of time. When I’m training we usually haven’t even got to where the loos are by five minutes. I tend to be garrulous. Crikey!
So, if not work related, what? There’d be too much setting up required to talk about science fiction, my abiding passion. I’m not sure a knitting demonstration is what the tutor had in mind, and I’m not allowed to talk about climate change. Then I had an epiphany. I’m going to talk about resilience. It is related to work but, although I touch on it in relationship to environmental issues in some courses, it isn’t something that is central to my job and it is something that I’m concerned about in my personal life. Here’s the first draft:

I’m going to talk today about resilience. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from a shock. I think the opposite would be brittleness or fragility. It is a concept that can be applied to all sorts of things, from a material to a civilisation. Hands up those who think our current civilisation is resilient.

You might guess that I don’t. The fragility of our modern British civilisation first impacted on me in the early 70s. I remember it vividly. The family was watching Star Trek and some horrid black blob beast had battened onto Spock’s back when, Bang! The lights went out. This, our first power cut of the miners’ strike, dropped us from the far galaxy spanning future directly into the cold dark scary past.

At the time we lived on a modern housing estate. When it was built a large underground oil storage tank had been provided to serve the heating needs of the whole estate. Oil was pumped through to the central heating boiler of each house. No electricity, no light, no heat. In my grandparents’ home there would have been warmth and some light from the open fire. There’d have been hot water from the geezer and the gas cooker would work for a while until the gas pressure fell. And, coming from the generation that lived through the war, they had a healthy stash of candles.

Our modern and efficient house contained exactly one candle, the advent candle. By the time the lights came back on there was only a dribbly red stub left… And there was a run on candles the next day in the village. None available, not even for ready money.

I think the experience had a salutary effect on me. That and the extensive reading of disaster SF. It’s not at the forefront of my thoughts all the time but the awareness of fragility squats at the back of my mind. I’m convinced we haven’t learnt from our experiences. Our systems are terrifically efficient and terribly brittle.

What could possibly go wrong? Drought in Russia, floods in Australia, land used to grow biofuels, a growing appetite for grain fed meat in the new middle classes in China and India, speculation in commodities; all leading to escalating food prices. Not immediate enough? We’re all rich enough not to go hungry after all.

We import over 40% of our gas now. Another very cold winter, low gas storage levels, a disruption similar to the one that affected central Europe whilst Russia and the Ukraine squabbled about who was or was not stealing gas. How would we fare? A lot of our electricity is gas powered now too.

Or imagine the same very cold winter, more likely as the climate changes, causing water pipes to freeze and burst. It happened in Northern Ireland this last winter. Weeks with only bottled water.

How about another volcano? A problem with oils supplies? Remember the oil refinery blockade a few years ago? No petrol at the pumps? Very quickly little food in the shops?

Just in Time deliveries are extremely efficient but they are not resilient. We have spent the last several years working to become super-efficient, to trim down to the bare bones. A system without fat is fine if there is no famine. Resilience is all about redundancy though. When the main system fails a secondary system takes the load. If that fails there is another backup. That’s not efficient. Efficiency is fine as long as everything goes to plan and nothing breaks down.

OK. Given my awareness of the dangers have I organised my life so I am safe from these failures? I have candles, I have a newly installed woodburning stove, I have a decent amount of food storage. I feel happy that I could weather a week’s disruption without pain but more than that? Water would be a problem in my urban environment, and a build up of waste. In reality my life can only be resilient in the context of a resilient society and not only do we not have one of those, our society is getting more and more brittle all the time. 

Oh wow!!!

So, for the first time ever, I watched a shuttle launch on Nasa's ustream. Golly! Why did I never do this before? I wouldn't have now if Ian wasn't standing somewhere in the horrible heat of Florida watching it live. I am torn. From a treehugging point of view the huge amount of energy spent on moving a few people and gizmos into orbit seems foolish. But OMG! My fannish soul just loves this and thinks we are out of our  minds to be throwing this ability away. Cognitive dissonance! 

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Not jealous...

The Thief of Badgags (my own darling Ian) is currently wandering around America having fun without me. To highlight my meanness in not accompanying him he is Skypeing me regularly and tormenting me with his latest wine-tasting escapades, not to mention the wonderful meals he has eaten and the fine time he is having with our friends. Good! Fine! I'm glad! And other insincere expletives! This was too much though.  Taken on his iPhone. He tells me that the chocolate flavoured wine is not nearly as nice as you might imagine. He tested it fairly extensively to be quite sure. Today, apparently, he will be out tasting proper wine with Tom, Spike, Mike and Karen. Sigh. Principles are horrid things.

Monday, February 7, 2011


This is the first reading book (as opposed to knitting pattern or gardening book) I have borrowed from the library. If it were not borrowed I’d put it in my ‘definitely keep’ category. I might end up buying it anyway which sort of negates the whole cost saving benefit of using the library.

I picked it off the shelf whilst I was looking at gardening books. I have a weakness for single subject books – they are often as illuminating about people as they are about the putative subject. This was no exception and proved truly fascinating. I had come across Richard Mabey only as the author of the ubiquitous and useful ‘Food for Free’ but had never read anything else by him. This is a shame because he turns out to be a knowledgeable and lyrical writer. Anyone interested in plants should seek his work out, this book in particular.

What are weeds? Before we began farming I guess there were just plants, some of which were useful to us, some not; weeds probably only arrived as a concept when we began to try to control nature for our benefit. The standard definition seems to be ‘a plant in the wrong place’. Ruskin, though, is quoted as saying a weed is ‘A vegetable which has an innate disposition to get into the wrong place … It is not its being venomous, or ugly, but its being impertinent – thrusting itself where it has no business, and hinders other people’s business – that makes a weed of it.’

Each chapter is named after a weed, beginning with Thoroughwort and ending with The Shoreditch Orchid by way of Love-in Idleness, French Willow and Triffid. We see how weeds arrive; by accident in hay or wool or packaging or deliberately (damn those Victorian gardeners) escaping into the wild. Our views have changed too so a lovely wildflower may be reclassified as a weed and sometimes back again.  Generally, though, weeds are associated, some might say made, by people. We select them, inadvertently, by our actions and the choices we make. Examples are the cornfield weeds, which were selected by our harvesting methods to be a similar height to the crop and by our threshing and cleaning methods to have a similar size and shape of seed. Evolution in action, with us as the evolutionary pressure. But as we disturb and compact soil signature weeds turn up to take advantage of our work. I am fascinated by the idea put forward that the weeds in an area indicate past human habitation and can be a living picture of what has happened on a site long after other signs have disappeared.

An illustration of the type of fascinating story embedded in this book is that of ‘the trunk-road hitchhiking of Danish scurvy-grass. Up to the 1980s [it] was a scarce native of the drier areas of the coasts around Britain….In the mid 1980s it began to appear on a few inland railway-line sites, where its seeds had been introduced with stone rubble brought from the seashore. Then it began to show up along the edges of motorways and major roads. The plants were packed close together, especially on the central reservations, and in their flowering time of March and April it was as if a deep and persistent frost had gripped the verges.’ Mabey continues his tale, noting that in Ireland, where road grit is salt free, there has been no similar diaspora. He notes other contributing factors but concludes, ‘the saltiness of the modern road – that shoreline tang sprayed from council gritting lorries every icy evening even in the landlocked heart of Britain – has been the crucial factor. Again, a social innovation has been immediately exploited by a weed.’

Mabey, towards the end of the book, suggests that we might consider restraining ourselves in our war against weeds given that something living is better than nothing as we move towards a different, more disrupted world. Even more, the urban ecosystems that have developed and made our cities more interesting are no longer in danger of infecting valuable cropland and could be left to naturalise. Weeds are usually pioneer creatures – they move in when we have destroyed a balanced ecosystem. Mabey comments that ‘they are like a kind of immune system, organisms which move in to repair damaged tissue, in this case earth stripped of its previous vegetation.’ He continues, ‘Weeds’ rapid, opportunist lifestyles mean that their role – what they do – is to fill the empty spaces of the earth, to repair the vegetation shattered naturally for millions of years by landslide and flood and forest fire, and today degraded by aggressive farming and gross pollution. In so doing they stabilise the soil, conserve water loss, provide shelter for other plants and begin the process of succession to more stable and complex plant systems.’ I will admit to a sneaking affection for most weed species and it’s good to see someone like Richard Mabey articulating this view so eloquently. This is definitely a keeper, not only for its sound ecological viewpoint, standing back a little from the concept that the world and its contents are solely for the use of humanity, but for its beautiful prose, dense with both information and imagery:
‘We habitually think of weeds as invaders, but in a precise sense they are also part of the heritage or legacy of a place, an ancestral presence, a time-biding genetic bank over which our buildings and tinkerings are just an ephemeral carapace.’

Picture (discussed in the book) by Albrecht Durer

Budgeting blues

Balancing my budget is a major part of my Anyway Project, an attempt to live a more sustainable, more meaningful life. It’s certainly not the most exciting part of the project but it’s essential as an enabling requirement. Without finding a way to live on less money some of my other aspirations cannot be considered. Having a comfortable home and a productive garden both require some input of money but more importantly they require me to have more time. Until recently I have been very short of time; work absorbed an inordinately large amount of time and energy. Now, however, I have an extra day a week for doing non-work stuff.

When times were especially hard at work, eighteen months or so ago, I (and the rest of the staff) was paid as if I were working a four day week. It kept the company viable. Some time ago we finally made it back to full salary and I found that I had plenty of money left at the end of the month. I talked to my boss and we agreed that I could go back to being paid for four days and actually only work four days. What a fab idea! So that’s what I’m doing and I’m loving the extra day each week.

One of the things I’m using my extra time for is to travel up to Ian’s once a month. Travelling off peak means I can go by train for around a third of full price. Ian reckons a round trip to see me costs around £120 with recent petrol prices. At around £30 for me there and back by train it not only saves him a lot of money, it saves a substantial amount of carbon. The extra time also means I can see more of my sister, Sue, whose work pattern means she has some Fridays and Mondays free too. And I’ve got time to do housework, cook and garden. It’s all good!

The only slight problem is the budgeting. Over the last two months I’ve been pretty slack about keeping my spending under control. In January I spent 25% more than I had budgeted for. Oops! It’s not the end of the world though, I was paid at my full time rate at the end of December so there was some slack available. There won’t be next month.

The budgeting method I use is from Zen Habits. It’s terribly simple and based on my income.  I split my income up as follows; 60% for living expenses. This includes utilities, food, clothes, contributions to kids university expenses, insurance, charitable donations etc. As much as possible of this is paid out automatically on monthly standing orders or direct debits. When I first took my pay cut I went through all my direct payments. I took out about a third of my charitable donations, mostly those that had been ‘sold’ to me by charming people, and retained the most important ones. Practical Action and Womankind are among the charities I kept on. I got rid of my contact lenses, cut my insurance payments down, got a water meter slashing my water bills by two thirds and turned my thermostat even further down. I also started buying my bulk food from Lembas, saving a substantial amount of money on Waitrose prices.

So, 60% for living expenses, 10% for short term savings, 10% for long term savings, 10% towards a pension and 10% for fun stuff. That last means that I don’t have to feel guilt for going to the pictures, eating out or buying a couple of bottles of wine. The short-term savings are supposed to be used. They are the way of dealing with the large payments that are scattered through the year including Christmas, birthdays, household maintenance costs and large purchases. Currently I am taking out more from my short-term savings than I am putting in. This is, of course, unsustainable. It should come to an end when my short-term savings reserves are exhausted or, preferably, before.

My long-term savings and some of the 10% for pension goes into my ISA, which is paying a paltry amount of interest right now. I am not contributing to a regular pension at the moment and haven’t been since taking the initial pay cut. I’m not sure quite what to do about this. I suspect that by the time I am able to retire there won’t be a pension scheme paying out anything I could live on no matter how much I paid in now. This is something to think about. In the meantime the money is as safe in a building society as anywhere.

If this system is used in its simplest form my salary goes into my current account, all regular payments are made automatically, including those into savings accounts and I should withdraw my fun money and living expenses money, and keep them in separate envelopes. I should never use my debit card and I should stop spending when I get to the end of the cash. This is a very effective way to cut down on spending. Actually handing over notes and coins and seeing the dwindling amount keeps you focussed. I think that is what I will do next month, keeping a small amount in the bank to pay for train tickets and maybe one book a month from Amazon.

What I have done up to now is track what I have spent in a tiny multicoloured excel spreadsheet, a new one for each month. The most technical this gets is a little box that tells me what I have left which is fine as long as I look at that box before spending. Which, of course, I don’t usually. I did a quick breakdown on what I have spent my discretionary money (fun & non-automatic living expenses). I found it a really useful exercise. Remember that I overspent by 25% for January.  This is how the total spend broke down:

18% eating out fun
18% required travel
16% clothes (in the sales)
12% garden
11% food
9%  household (a new sheet, towels etc in the sales)
7% wood for my little stove
2% entertainment (tickets for Sally & me to see George Monbiot debate)
2% books
2% discretionary travel (buses in Sheffield where I could walk)
2% discretionary food (food I buy when travelling due to lack of organisation)
1% health (one prescription & hand cleaner for travel)

OK, January is when I do my bulk garden order and that could have come out of short-term savings but there’s already some wool (from the sales), train fares to get Sally to university interviews and Sally’s hotel at Eastercon (£216!!!) in there. And I spent lots more on clothes and household stuff because in the sales you can get twice as much for the same money. Also, the wood purchase, whilst not a one-off will not be a regular – the stove is very much a back-up and very occasional cosy evenings extravagance. Books are down to almost nothing due to joining the library.

What is quite interesting (to me) is that Eating Out Fun and Required Travel (train tickets) are by far the biggest portion of the money I spend. The other rather scary thing is that I pay somewhat less than half of the spend for Ian and my joint meals out. To some extent the eating out is because he and I have such different preferences. He’d rather eat meat and a salad and I’d rather eat vegetarian with a preference to starch. If necessary I’m sure we could come up with another way of dealing with this at home.

And that is the comforting conclusion I draw from this analysis. I could live comfortably on even less money if the need arose. It would require more thought and organisation but it would be quite possible. If the economy continues downward I could still work a four-day week and get paid for three, but only just. And below a certain level of income comfort just disappears.  

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A transport of delight - reprise

One of the useful things that the East Coast (and other train) website does is send email alerts when tickets are released for sale. Train tickets are available up to three months before travel and the sooner you book, generally, the cheaper deals you can get. At the moment travel is available up to the end of April including the Royal Wedding Day (hurrah?) 

Last week the tickets to get Sally and me to Eastercon were released but the return ones were not. Given that singles are usually cheaper I had bought the outgoing tickets. Today the return tickets came available and I went to book. Horrors! Only full priced (and first class) singles were available from Birmingham International at £35. An off peak return is £37.80. I was not happy. 

I didn't panic though; I remembered Martin Moneytips advice and split the trip. Birmingham International to New Street turns out to cost £2.30 at my time of travel. Birmingham New Street to Sheffield, seat booked, cost £10.50. Instead of £35 I have paid £12.80, a fairly good saving.