Saturday, April 30, 2011


I have never spent this much time thinking about what I was going to buy to eat for a week. At my best I sit down and plan out menus for the week then write a shopping list, which I take to Waitrose and stick to, pretty much. At my worst I shop when I’m hungry and pile anything that takes my fancy into the trolley. I usually end up with too much stuff, most of which I do eat but after it is past its best, some of which I throw away when I find it mouldering gently in a corner at the back of the fridge. This week, with so little money I have spent quite some time online comparing prices.

The first thing to think about is that I must buy what is available. That is, I can’t buy in bulk and then split the food into smaller lots. If 500g is the smallest size of an ingredient that is sold, that is what I must buy. This, of course, presents the first difficulty of shopping when you are poor. The less you can buy at a time, the more it costs per unit. The economies of scale are just not available. It used to be that there were lots of bin-shops where you could find large numbers of open bins containing dry foods. You scooped out as much as you wanted. What an excellent idea. Unfortunately this fashion seems to have disappeared around here and there are no such shops in walking distance. And that’s the other thing I decided. If I am eating on £1 a day it is cheating to drive half way across Yorkshire to find food that is 20p cheaper per item. Everything must be purchased within walking distance of where I live. That leaves me Tesco, Waitrose, the Co-op a couple of health food shops and a greengrocers. There is a market in Sheffield that would probably be cheaper for fresh vegetables but it is a bus ride away (£2.60 there and back) or an hour and a half walk.
My usual supermarket of choice is Waitrose but I haven’t been able to use them this week because they tended to be up to 10p more expensive than Tescos. The Co-op is my nearest supermarket but is also more expensive for most things and has a very limited dried food section. My eggs and onions come from the Co-op, my cheese from Waitrose and all the rest from Tescos.

Shopping for one person is very difficult. I went for the following:
250ml Tesco extra virgin olive oil, 98p
500g dried chick peas, 78p
4 onions, 60p
4 carrots, 28p
500g pearl barley, 39p
300g quinoa, £1.69
10 Tesco value stock cubes, 10p

As you can see, a week of very boring meals for me! Having cooking oil seems very important to me, the flavour is in the oil, and a lot of the calories. Chick peas are my main protein with either barley (extremely cheap) or quinoa (my most expensive choice but a complete protein source). There are only two vegetables, onions and carrots. Onions are cheap, provide a decent amount of bulk and give a lot of taste. I’ve chosen carrots for the vitamin content and, again, the taste. I can’t afford any spices so the stock cubes are to add some additional taste to the grains. Luckily there’s a bay tree and a little thyme bush in the garden, which I am considering to be free because I haven’t spent anything on them for three years.

Having grumbled to Sally she suggested I reconsider and feed her too. Mm, good idea. That immediately made everything easier. With another five pounds to spend I was able to add the following:
500g Tesco porridge oats, 62p
1pt full fat milk, 48p
6 Co-op free range eggs, mixed size, £1.20
120g Wookey Hole Cheddar cheese, £1.06 (from the cheese counter at Waitrose)
4 new potatoes, 60p
1 tin Tesco value plum tomatoes, 31p

I’ve chosen full fat milk because it is the same cost as skimmed or semi and has more calories and nutrition for the money. The value eggs were much cheaper but I’d rather do without than use eggs from battery hens. The cheese is more a condiment than a major ingredient and was only affordable because at the cheese counter you can get whatever amount you want. The plum tomatoes are 2p cheaper than chopped and, when every penny counts, I can chop my own tinned tomatoes.

What I am doing without is tea, coffee and alcohol because it’s just not affordable on a tight budget. I’ve also decided not to buy any fruit. It’s relatively expensive and it doesn’t give enough calories for my cash. In a few months time I’d be able to eat blackcurrants out of the garden and forage for early blackberries. At the moment all I can forage is leafy vegetables.  There’re nettles, dandelions, and ransomes. I’ve also got the remains of some going to seed kale and chard and I may use the green shoots of one of the garlic plants. This is the equivalent to eating you seed corn as there won’t be a bulb from that plant at the end of the year. What this demonstrates is that anyone with access to land can live much better than those reliant on shops.

I’ve currently got 91p left to play with and I may go looking in the reduced bins. Now I’ve got to plan how to make these ingredients stretch for fifteen meals.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Live Below the Line

This is a very interesting idea and way of raising both money and awareness of extreme poverty. I am participating on behalf of Christian Aid. This is my message on the fundraising website:

This May I'm going to be living below the line! From May 2nd - 6th I'll be surviving off just £1 a day for all of my food... Given that sometimes I spend that much on a piece of cheese I expect it to be eye-opening.
I'm expecting it to be difficult (I'm going to have to wean myself of caffeine to prepare), but it's an awesome way for me to raise money and awareness for the 1.4 billion people who have to live like this every day - and who have to make £1 cover a lot more than food!
I will be blogging about what I'm eating and how hungry I am at Have a look.
Please donate to support me, and critical anti-poverty initiatives. After donating - you should consider joining up and doing it yourself!
I have spent much of today doing research which has been fascinating. I've got my ingredients list sorted. I just need to work out how to cook my very limited ingredients so that I'm not bored. I'll write up my research in my next posting. If you want to read more the website is here.

Thursday, April 28, 2011


Eastercon, despite my anxiety beforehand, turned out to be a qualified success. This was good because I'd feared a disaster. The 'History of SF' theme seems to have been replaced at the last moment by 'Women in SF', something that I am very interested in and the only one of the 'themes' that I went to. As someone pointed out, in the History of SF, apart from Mary Shelley there would have been few women until Monday, assuming chronological items. The other programme items I attended were, as always, items with friends on.

What went right? Many, though not all, of my friends were there. June & Nick, Christina & Doug, Sue & Roo, Tim & Clarrie MacGuire, Julian Headlong, Tony Berry, Lilian and, for half a day only, Meredith MacArdle who I met at my first Eastercon. All the Sheffield crew were there too of course, the reason I moved to Sheffield. Swimming with Julia was one of my highlights. 
As Eastercon many years ago stopped being, for me, an event to learn about SF and became a place to meet and party with friends, this immediately made it a good Eastercon. On these grounds this makes the Heathrow Eastercons the best because the lazy, good-for-nothing London fans turn up (this means you Joseph & Judith) but I prefer not to trek down to Heathrow at Easter if I can avoid it, unless Neil Gaiman is a Guest. Other than geographical considerations, to make a good con there has to be a good enough programme to move people around the hotel. Toucon is an example of this not working. The movement, even if you are not a big programme attender, means that you meet other people and often have something to discuss or argue about. Without this the whole con stagnates. 
The programme, seemingly cobbled together at the last moment, was good enough for this. As I noted, the Women in SF theme gave me the opportunity to always find June and Christina and was interesting, although slightly superficial and over reliant on the same panellists. The Diana Wynne Jones memorial was lovely and reminded me of how wonderful her work is, and that I must check that I've got all of her books whilst the getting is good. It also reminded me that I like panels that talk about books, which were noticeably lacking. I missed 'Not the Clarkes' and 'Read this Novel' was cancelled. There were a series of items called 'Best Books & Lego' but I assumed they were not aimed at me.
Other than these I went to the audio books panel, the only place I saw David Weber who seemed to be a fine guest, the mirror universe panel which was fun but had been secretly set up so that all Ian's preparation (a full quarter of an hour) was useless, and Never Mind the Buzz Aldrins which was even more fun even if all the movie themes sound the same to me. Oh yes, and the permanent Fan Lounge/Real Ale bar with an excellent and changing range of beers was the programme item I frequented most enthusiastically.
The book room seemed to be suffering from Julian having bought a Kindle but was still humming although, due to miscalculation of this month's budget, I could only find the money to buy two books, a new Guy Gavriel Kaye and Engineman which I suspect I have already but Rog insisted.
The hotel was great. The staff were universally friendly and helpful, the bedrooms were comfortable (once the windows were opened), the swimming pool and jacuzzi were light & airy and just right, and the breakfasts were excellent, I mean, really excellent. Vast choice and omelettes cooked for you while you waited. The toast queue provided another opportunity to meet large numbers of fans you were not acquainted with. 

So what was not good? The hotel mainly. The bedrooms were over hot, the room rates were horribly high with no option to find a sharer from the convention, the coffee came from the Hitchhiker universe, and the cost of the cheapest bottle of wine was over £26. Two large glasses of wine would set you back enough to buy three, maybe four, bottles of drinkable wine from the Spar at the airport if you fancied a ten minute walk. The con food was unexciting to say the least. Cheese and tomato baguette twice in a weekend is more than enough. If motorway service stations can produce a better selection for vegetarians surely a decent hotel can. We didn't find the actual cheap con food area until the Monday. My baked potato was barely edible but the pizzas would have made unattractively glazed bathroom tiles. For this type of operation to work there must be a fairly fast turn over of food and there obviously wasn't. Perhaps we were not the only ones to fail to find it. 
The setting of the hotel was surprisingly nice, in the Birmingham International/NEC park, but that meant that there was nowhere worth eating within walking distance and the taxis, like at Heathrow, are decidedly expesive. Still, pack enough people into the taxi and you can get a very nice meal and reasonably priced wine to go with it at The Bull at Meriden, cheaper than the hotel even with the taxi fares included.

So overall, I enjoyed it far more than I expected to. If the programme was a little skimpy it worked well enough and perhaps the best thing they did was to allow hour and a half time slots for the programme. This meant that interesting items could overrun slightly, that people had time for a comfort break or to buy a beer between items, and that we did not repeat the embarrassment and audience annoyance caused by bundling Ben Goldacre off stage midflight. Well done Illustrious!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

More thought on bikes

On the train yesterday three young women were drinking raspberry bellinis. The fourth in the set of seats was hiding from them behind a copy of the Independent. This allowed me to see the front page. This morning I googled it. I was shocked, though not surprised, by the article, ‘Save our cyclists: Clamour for flood of avoidable road deaths to be stemmed’. I was horrified though not surprised by some of the comments. In the eyes of some Independent readers cyclists seem to be not only an inconvenience to drivers, but the undeserving recipients of too much money spent on protecting them and, obviously, all arrogant idiots who would only be improved by a head injury.

What is all this about? I would have thought that the advantage other drivers get from fewer people being in cars far outweighs the slight frustration of driving a little more carefully because slower and more vulnerable cyclists are sharing the road. I was given a lift from Hayes House to the railway station in Sheffield last week. Googlemaps suggests three different routes varying from 1.4 to 2.2 miles and estimating around 7 minutes for the journey. At something after five in the evening it took more than half an hour and I missed my train. As we inched forward at a couple of miles an hour a seemingly endless stream of cyclists passed us. I can imagine that is very irritating to the sorts of drivers who think Jeremy Clarkson is a god. It is not, however, the bikes that cause the delay but the other people thoughtless enough to want to drive their cars in rush hour too. Damn them, not the cyclists weaving their way through the almost stationary pollution producing obstacles. I mentioned this to my friend Julia when I eventually arrived at her house (by bus) and she recounted the story of a cyclist who she heard would have knocked a child down if not stopped by the quick thinking lorry driver who blasted his horn and frightened the child to a standstill. I am not contending that there are not idiots on bikes and that these idiots can’t do damage but every time prejudice against cyclists is mentioned everyone has a story confirming the prejudice.

Because I am sad I looked up the government statistics for road casualties for the UK in 2008 (the last year with full data). In that year there were a total of 230,905 reported casualties of all severities with 2538 people killed. People driving whilst over the legal limit of alcohol were involved in 13,020 casualties with 430 deaths. In the same year 115 pedal cyclists were killed and 2,450 were seriously injured.

When a cyclist is involved most reported accidents (93%) involve two vehicles, the bike and another compared to all reported accidents (59%), which presumably means that 41% of reported accidents involved a vehicle and a pedestrian. 95% of the casualties resulting from a pedal cyclist accident are pedal cyclists. 2% of pedal cyclist accidents involve a pedestrian and in 2008 this resulted in eight deaths and 143 serious injuries for the cyclist. The same set of accidents resulted in 1 pedestrian death and 54 serious injuries. This is very obviously one death and 54 serious injuries too many but in 2008 6,642 pedestrians died or were seriously injured in traffic accidents. How come the drivers who killed or seriously injured 99.2% of pedestrians are less vilified than the cyclists who kill or seriously injure 0.8%? Or the drink drivers who caused over 13,000 casualties, 430 deaths?

I know looking at numbers may be boring but it puts the whole thing into context. There are dangerous cyclists but they do not cause anything like the slaughter on the roads caused by people in powered vehicles. The danger of vilifying cyclists is that you tend to take less care over someone you perceive as worthless than those to whom you accord some measure of respect. I don’t have any problem with the idea of prosecuting cyclists who, because of dangerous riding, cause death or injury to others but I would like to see the safety of pedestrians and cyclists taken much more seriously.

Having recently taken to the road myself on a rather flash girly bike I am far more aware of the respect, or lack of it, accorded to cyclists than at any time since passing my cycling proficiency test almost forty years ago. Apparently research has shown that drivers are more courteous to women bikers than male cyclists. Crikey! Somewhere in the comments section in the Independent someone remarked that in Europe the person in the more powerful vehicle is automatically judged to be at fault. I quite like that. If you plough into someone more vulnerable, even someone who is not where you think they should be (the gutter is full of drains, potholes & broken glass), you are held responsible whether you are driving an HGV or a pedal cycle. If you are at fault you should be prosecuted. The other suggestion I liked was that before you are allowed to drive a powered vehicle you should be required to ride a bike in traffic. For professional drivers I think this should be something imposed annually. You want to drive for a living you have to spend a full day cycling through heavy traffic.

The taxi driver who pulled into the path of my brother-in-law recently as he cycled down a steep hill won’t be prosecuted because Robin didn’t die although, judging from the state of his helmet, he might easily have. Sentence the driver not just to a couple of days retraining but include a day on a bike.

And whilst I’m wishing for the impossible, I’d like cycle lanes to include double yellow lines and not fade away into hostile traffic.

Monday, April 4, 2011


This morning I finally made it to the allotment to do something other than gaze happily and show it off to friends and family. I think I probably need a skip to dispose of all the assorted trash that has built up there. I wanted to trim the hedge back but there were areas where the footing definitely wasn't safe. I need to find out what is rotting below the undergrowth before venturing up to the hedge line. It took me 40 minutes to walk there but there are buses (81 and 88A) which I will catch from now on. I spent an hour and a half clipping and digging and have 7/8th cleared one tiny bed, as you can see. The bed was mainly supporting docks, dandelions, buttercups, wild strawberry and more couch grass than seems at all reasonable. I stopped at 7/8th cleared because I was concerned I wouldn't be able to walk home if I didn't.

In the areas further in there were a fair number of young stinging nettles. This is a good thing because it tells me the land is fertile. The buttercups indicate wet ground. The soil seems quite reasonable; a tendency to clay but not too heavy. There is also, to judge by the tubs strewn around, a slug problem, but that just seems to be the case anywhere is Sheffield.

Eventually, having spent some time on back-breaking work and coming to the end of my available time window (it was due to rain but, more importantly, I'd drunk enough tea to need to be looking for a loo), I spent a few minutes picking my first harvest. Early spring nettles, before they get all dry and stringy, make wonderful soup.
So here it is. Yummy nettle soup made with onions, garlic, leeks (from the garden), potatoes and a little bit of nutmeg. And a dollop of greek style yogurt. I suspect it'll be quite a while and a lot of hard work before I get anything else worth eating from the allotment.

Sunday, April 3, 2011


So much to do so little time. This weekend was Veggie Night at FFW (awesome), Ian's birthday, Mothering Sunday, and the weekend I had put aside to try to pull Journey Planet into shape. Oh dear.
I met the Leader of Sheffield Council, Paul Scriven, at FFW and was rather taken with him. As the leader I have always liked the way he, or his minions, deal with letters and emails. It's nice to know that he's someone I'd be happy to have dinner with. He even laughed at Ian's jokes.

My lovely and accommodating sister, Sue, and her husband, Robin, drove me to the new allotment for a look round then took me to Galaxy 4 to buy a remote control Dalek for Ian. I'd decided what to buy weeks ago but didn't want to carry it home on foot and I'm far too tight to pay for a taxi. What do you buy for the man who has everything he wants and needs? As it turns out, a T-shirt from Questionable Content, an Atlas of Remote Islands and a Dalek.

This weekend was payday and the beginning of my new year's budget. Ow! It was the weekend we ate every lunch out, it was the weekend we found that Rita Rudner was playing in London in July and it was the weekend I looked through all the Margaret Mahy pages on Amazon. It was an expensive weekend.

There will be more words when Journey Planet goes away.