11. The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman

Screen Shot 2018-04-02 at 11.30.44It’s been a long time since I read Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials and I haven’t read any of his other books, but I was intrigued to hear of this new trilogy as a prequel to the tale of Lyra and Pantalaimon. This story centres around Malcolm Polstead and his dœmon Asta. Malcolm is 11 years old and lives with his parents in the pub they run. Malcolm helps in the pub and gets to listen to conversations about all that is going on in the world which is not a friendly place.

Lyra comes into the story very early on, but as she is a baby it is her presence and the need to protect her that is important rather than Lyra as a character. Malcolm is very taken with Lyra and this is really an adventure story of how Malcolm protects and looks after Lyra (though not entirely on his own) against enemies both known and unknown and seen and unseen.

Other reviews I have seen of this book and they are very mixed. Some wonder why Philip Pullman wrote this at all, others loved getting re-acquainted with the Oxford of Lyra’s world and the strange and wonderful characters that inhabit it. For me this book delivered, though perhaps more as an adventure book more than anything. Having been so long since I read the Dark Materials trilogy I can see I have missed some important connections so will need to re-visit these books before the next volume comes out.

It is a slow start, but for me that was fine. A gentle reminder of this alternative world, with secret societies and cruel state. The second half of the book was fast moving with many obstacles for Malcolm and companion to overcome to deliver Lyra to a place of safety. It ended very swiftly for me, almost undoing all the work that Malcolm had done to get Lyra back to her father. However, I enjoyed the book and am looking forward to the next instalment. In the meantime, I need to get back to His Dark Materials…

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Plastic, plastic and more plastic

Screen Shot 2018-03-31 at 16.23.07Weather wise, March has been rather odd. We have the longer days, we’ve had the spring equinox but we’ve also had snow and very cold temperatures. The gerbera, that has been thriving outside my front door for the last 4 years, has been badly hit. The green shoots and buds that were coming up are all gone. It’s a shame, for a plant that is often seen as an annual in our climate, this one has done remarkably well. I guess I can’t complain. I have bought some dahlia bulbs to put in the pot instead.

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Our little friendly muntjac

The cold weather brought some interesting birds into our garden. Fieldfare and redwing may be reasonably common but not often seen. As with many others, we increased the amount of food we left out for our little feathered and furry friends while temperatures sat firmly below zero and the snow lay equally firmly on the ground. Such a pleasure to see such wildlife up close and our little friend the muntjac deer continues to be a regular visitor.

I’ve learnt a lot about plastic this month. Well, not about plastic per se, but how it’s used and more importantly disposed of, or not as the case may be. Plastic bottle lids are a different type of plastic to the bottle so they can’t be recycled together, in fact some say the lids can’t be recycled at all.

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Top on or top off…that is the question

If the lid is left on when put in the waste, the whole thing may well end up in landfill according to the instructions for our local recycling. Yet interestingly, other areas ask that the lids are kept on so I guess it depends on where you live as to what to do.

Plastic for recycling should be clean as food waste can contaminate it and other waste in the same batch. One messy plastic container can cause a whole load to be sent to landfill, so even if I wash out the plastic, if others near me don’t, my plastic may still be landfilled!

Waste recycling plants have a clear floor policy. If by the end of the day, they have not dealt with everything that has arrived it is scooped up and sent to landfill. All in all this is not a positive message and reinforces the need to reduce the use of plastic rather than just ensuring it goes in the right bin.

I’ve made a start to reduce the waste we produce by actively reducing what I use. The online shopping has stopped and since then, so far, no additional plastic bags have come into our house. I’ve done small things, such as empty the bedroom and bathrooms bins straight into the wheelie bin and keep the bag as a liner rather than replace it. I now buy large pots of yoghurt which last several days, rather than small pots, so while there is still waste it is reduced. I was amazed how difficult it is to buy vegetables at the supermarket without plastic packaging, so now I buy my fruit and vegetables from the local farm shop. Though sadly there is still some plastic there!

I’ve looked for different products to buy, in particular items like shampoo, shower and hand gel and cleaning products. These items come in a new pot every time, I really want to be able to re-fill them rather than keep buying a new plastic bottle. This is not easy, certainly if you don’t want to spend a fortune. It also generally means buying over the internet, so there is the question of carbon footprint too. I have found an alternative for hand gel, getting a re-fill rather than a new pump action bottle. This is far from perfect as the re-fill pot is plastic, but it does reduce. For shampoo and conditioner though, those that will re-fill are a minimum of twice as expensive as my normal ones and some more like 10 times as expensive! I will keep looking as there must be a better compromise.

I found a great website that sells all sorts of products from hair care to bath time and moisturisers. They use aluminium bottles which can be returned, washed and re-used. It seems a reasonable price too, but….it’s in the USA and ships to there and Canada only. If you happen to be reading in either of those countries, do check out Plaine Products though. I will continue to look for something similar in the UK.

Another change is toilet paper, this may not be so related to plastic (though it all comes wrapped in the stuff!), but it’s sad that trees are destroyed simply to go down the toilet. On top of that lots of bleach and other chemicals are used in its manufacture.

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Bamboo toilet paper wrapped in (recyclable) plastic

I found Cheeky Panda bamboo toilet paper which I was able to order from Amazon. Bamboo is a grass and once harvested grows back and can be harvested every year. Its natural properties mean it can be manufactured without the use of harsh chemicals so this is our new toilet paper of choice. Imagine my disappointment though when the box arrived with plastic wrappers inside. I will be writing to them about that. This YouTube video is somewhat cheesy but gives some good information.

There is so very far to go, but I do get a sense that things are slowly changing, or maybe it is just my awareness that is changing. Nonetheless, there are some good news stories…

Costa Rica is looking to ban all single use plastic by 2021, that’s all single use plastic, from cutlery to coffee cups, from bottles to coffee stirrers and many other things besides. Go Costa Rica!!

India has banned disposable plastics in Delhi and its surrounding areas. This ban is over a year old now, I can’t find information on what difference it has made thus far.

Plastic is being turned into pellets and mixed with asphalt to build roads, in other countries but even here in the UK it is on trial. The claim is that the roads are longer lasting which is great news for those of us dodging potholes. Only 0.5% of the mixture is plastic though, but a step in the right direction.

The BBC is banning single use plastics on all its sites by 2020 starting by scrapping single use cutlery and cups by the end of this year. This was inspired by the Queen implementing a similar ban in her palaces.

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Source: The Ocean Project

It is not all doom and gloom and even the UK Government has launched a consultation on the idea of deposit return scheme for plastic bottles alongside Theresa May’s vow to eliminate plastic waste in the UK by 2042. There are many other amazing stories out there of individuals who do so much to clear up the mess of others. But for me the strongest message is not to use it in the first place. There is still much to do so I will continue with my quest and talk to others about what I am doing. Our oceans and the future of our planet deserves better. People are starting to say this is the Blue Planet effect which I’m sure did bring awareness to many and I’m sure David Attenborough must be delighted that he has made a dent in the world of plastic waste.

Longer days, wildlife and rubbish

Screen Shot 2018-02-25 at 17.22.13I’ve decided that February is my favourite  month of the year. It’s because it contains so much promise, finally the days really feel like they are getting longer and there are little signs of spring popping up, snowdrops, crocus, celandine and daffodils all start to show their magnificent colours and cheer. This January was particularly dull and the lighter mornings have been such a joy and mid-month I headed out without a headlamp at all, it was uplifting. The second day I left the headlamp the clouds had returned and it was gloomy again which of course made me grumpy. I should have made the grump wait and be patient as the clouds meant there was a beautiful sunrise. While I was gazing and admiring the pink clouds as they chased away my grumpiness, a barn owl swooped into view, majestic, amazing and totally silent. Wow!

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The famous MK concrete cows

Another advantage to these lighter mornings is the chance to admire the wildlife. I am so incredibly lucky to run along the river in Milton Keynes, yes Milton Keynes! The place famed for its concrete cows and roundabouts but actually has a lot of green spaces as well as the Grand Union Canal and the River Ouzel. The way Milton Keynes was designed was to keep as many green spaces as possible and the parks by the riverside go under the roads so I can run for miles without any contact with traffic. And the wildlife is fab! Many robins bob about and sit in the trees singing their beautiful song, the black birds chirrup at me if they think I am too close and the green woodpeckers cackle from high in the trees. This week alone I have seen the heron, little white egret, tree creeper and the kingfisher. I can hear so many others chirruping away and strain to see them but sometimes they are just too high. This is the best time of year though, as the birds get frisky and before the leaves and other green growth hide them.

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to see three otters in the river. I was still wearing my headlamp and I spied two pairs of eyes swimming along the river. I stopped to have a closer look and it was two young otters playing. On the opposite bank a larger pair of eyes was looking straight at me. It was mother otter who slipped into the water and ushered her young away. Incredible.

I am saddened by the amount of rubbish that is left behind at these beautiful places we have. The Parks Trust do a grand job tidying up but when the river swells as it has done a number of times recently, more rubbish flows downstream. Alongside this there has been a general increase in awareness around what happens to our waste in many news stories and Blue Planet II which recently finished with David Attenborough explaining the danger for our oceans.

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Debris on beach near Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, by Loranchet is licensed under CC Sharealike 3.0

As much as 80% of marine waste comes from rivers, so keeping these waterways clear is important. With currents our waste could end up anywhere in the world almost, so now is a good time to change. I’ve always tried to be careful with waste, recycle where possible and always take my own bags when shopping. But as they say, there is always room for improvement and we do produce a large amount of recyclable waste. I started to look at my shopping habits which have got a bit lazy if I’m honest. This is mainly with vegetables where so many are sold in plastic containers with plastic coverings and those that aren’t are placed in plastic bags! Having got into the habit of an online shop at least twice a month, I realised I was bringing far too much waste into the house. I have no control over the online shop, even opting for no bags doesn’t mean they don’t use at least some and loose fruit and veg is always in a bag with a sticker placed in such a way that I can’t re-use the bag or the handles tied so tightly the only way in is to tear it. So my first change is to stop the online delivery and head to the supermarket myself. My second change is to buy only loose fruit and vegetables and put them straight in my hessian bag. The self scan sticker sits nicely on the outside of the bag should it be needed. I have noticed our recycling bin is already not as full! I’m also trading single portion yoghurts for large tubs to try to reduce waste.

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Milk carton storage tidying up my drawer

The next best thing to not creating the waste in the first place is re-use. I’ve been investigating making things with plastic bags. I’ve not been terribly successful though I have managed the first stage of making ‘plarn’ (yarn from plastic!). Now all I need to do is learn how to crochet or weave it which is easier said than done. A far easier re-use is tidying up our storage. I’ve been using the bottom of milk cartons to tidy up the drawer where I keep spare hand gels, toothpaste and other such items. There is of course only so many cartons I will need for that so will need to come up with other ideas soon. 

This is starting small, I know one person’s change isn’t going to change the world. But if one person reads this and they make a change too then it’s worth it, and if that does happen and they share their thoughts and another change is made it’s even better. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop here, I need a little time to think about other changes and differences I can make and you can be sure that I will.

I’ve just taken the photo above of my milk carton storage and all I see is plastic in plastic – where will it end? I will take little steps but there is so far to go, if you’ve read this far please help with the fight against plastic to protect our beautiful precious world.

 

Dark mornings, post boxes and birthday shenanigans

Screen Shot 2018-01-28 at 18.51.12As January comes to a close I’m reflecting on how I’ve spent the first month of 2018. The weather has not been great, nothing terrible, a little snow and lots of rain. With lots of rain come lots of clouds and that has been what has made it feel really quite miserable and at times very hard work. Apparently there have been two full moons in January, quite a rare occurrence I believe but I have been unable to witness them as they have hidden behind the deep black clouds. To keep running I get up quite early, about 5.30 each morning. I know there are plenty of others who get up earlier and I don’t keep it up at the weekend but for me it’s quite good going. I drive the 12.5 miles into work then head out along the River Ouzel for my morning’s 3 or 4 mile run…well plod really.  I don’t mind running in the dark and have discovered a headlamp that you can charge via USB which is perfect, lighter than my old battery operated one and no more batteries to buy! But when the cloud cover feels oppressive it makes the whole run feel such hard work. I expect darkness in January but where are the cold clear skies and frost that sparkles from the gleam of my headlamp? So I have kept going though not done the number of miles I’d hoped to for the month. With 3 days to go I’m at just under 68 miles whereas I would rather be at just under 80.

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Evidence of my less than perfect mileage

Still, never mind, there have been a couple of days where the weather beat me, one was very wet snow and frankly I just didn’t want to fall over. The other was incredible wind. I lay in bed awake from before 4am listening to the wind banging against the house. I was more bothered about getting in the car in such weather and drive along my tree lined route in the dark and on my own than the running so I had a sneaky extra 45 minutes in bed and by the time I headed out the wind had thankfully eased. Trees had fallen, though not directly on my route. I have been keeping up with my core exercises, after every run I’ve got on the floor to get strengthening. I’d like to say it’s working, but I really can’t tell right now!

V&ATo cheer up January I have a birthday! The treat was heading to the Victoria and Albert Museum to see an exhibition dedicated to Winne-the-Pooh. Having not been to the V&A since I was a child (last century!!) I really didn’t know what to expect. We arrived in the tunnel entrance so didn’t see the outside of the building when we arrived. I was quite overwhelmed by the size of the museum, 12 acres is quite a size for artefacts! We wandered slightly aimlessly for a while but finally managed to get to the main entrance where we picked up a map. Some of the things I knew I wanted to see were the William Morris exhibits (and a fascinating video on how they make his wallpaper – no wonder it’s so expensive!), outfits designed by Alexander McQueen (we must view them differently in light of the manner of his death) and the rooms depicting the Victorian era. There are so many things to see it was daunting and it was also so very busy. Lunch was good in the beautifully decorated dining area, though we did have to share a table.

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Winnie-the-Pooh chasing bees to find the honey

The best was of course the Winnie-the-Pooh exhibition. I was completely taken with the original EH Shepard sketches which so cleverly characterise the toys and Christopher Robin. There were original manuscripts written in AA Milne’s own hand which showed how he used words visually as well as rhythmically. AA Milne and EH Shepard built up a true partnership which helped the stories to evolve and gain depth. It was so very special. We left the museum by the main Cromwell Road entrance (or should I say exit?) and finally got to see this amazing building.

I have been finding out more about post boxes. It is only recently that I started to pay attention to them as I, like most people I guess, pay them very little heed. One day on the radio I heard someone talking about post boxes from the short reign of Edward VIII. I had never thought of this before, I knew of Victorian post boxes and a few from the reign of George VI, but with most bearing the insignia of Queen Elizabeth, I had never thought of those who came between Victoria and George VI. It also led me to wonder how you could tell an Edwardian post box from an Elizabethan one. Knowing that Edward VIII post boxes are rare lit a challenge in me to find one. But first – how would I know?

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The Royal Cyphers adorning our post boxes

Post boxes bear the insignia of the monarch on the throne at the time of their making. This gives us VR for Victoria, E VII R for Edward VII, GR for George V (note there are no numerals here), E VIII R for Edward VIII, G VI R for George VI and E II R for our current Queen. I have always assumed GR post boxes were George VI, completely forgetting about his Father. In my challenge to find an Edward VIII post box I stumbled upon a website saying there was one a mere 8 or 9 miles from home. So one afternoon off we pootled off to track it down. The post box was indeed there and a very old one, but it was not Edward VIII, it was his Grandfather Edward VII. Having never knowingly seen one of these either I was not disappointed but the search goes on. In September we are heading to Arundel for the weekend and I have it on good authority that there is one in the next village. I will track it down!

Overall a fun month, if you ignore the miserable weather. But today it has been brighter and indeed mild with a little hint of spring in the air. The daffodils are breaking the soil and I passed cheery snowdrops on my run so hope is in the air.

What will February bring?

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Standing next to the Edward VII post box

10. The Complete Book of Aga know-how by Richard Maggs

Screen Shot 2018-01-07 at 10.34.40The fact that I am reading this book, in fact received it as a Christmas gift, may imply that I own an Aga. Sadly I do not. So why read a book about the Aga you may ask. Well, I really want an Aga and we plan to up sticks in 4 or 5 years time to a house where I hope to house an Aga, so now seems like a good time to find out about it and maybe stay in a couple of places that have them to try one out. That way, I will be prepared when the time comes.

I don’t think this book is intended to be read cover to cover like a novel, but that’s what I did. I skimmed some of the recipes but the rest was most enlightening. I had no idea that different parts of the Aga settle at different temperatures and that not only do the ovens have different functions, so do the two hot plates, namely a boiling plate and a simmering plate. I think this goes to show how much of a novice I am!

An Aga is a huge investment, a four oven Aga has starting prices at just over £12000. It is possible to get an reconditioned Aga but Richard Maggs in this book has sage warnings over this and is clearly not a fan of second hand. However, a bit of research shows that with the right dealer and properly trained engineers a used Aga is a much cheaper option. It is useful to note the advice in the book to ensure that reconditioning the Aga has not changed its fuel type.

There are lots of hints and tips and covering everything you could possibly want to cook, from cheese on toast for one to pasta for 120! A lot of the cooking tips do centre around meat dishes which as a vegetarian is not really my cup of tea but there is plenty in there to keep me interested and encourage ideas to try out on non-meat dishes.

I have certainly not been put off the idea of an Aga, this book has really whetted my appetite and as and when I am lucky enough to call myself an Aga owner I am sure this book will become very well thumbed!

In the meantime, I need to find some holiday destinations with an Aga to have a little dabble. I may even head to an Aga demonstration one day.

New Years resolutions

Well it is the time of year where we all (many of us anyway) make promises to get fitter, learn something new, give up a bad habit or just generally be better. But it often doesn’t take very long for all these good intentions to fall by the wayside. I am no different and regularly have good intentions which never see the light of day or at best last a week or two. Screen Shot 2018-01-02 at 16.58.19Blogging is one of my victims, or maybe not quite. Whilst I haven’t done as much as I would like to have, I have kept going, albeit intermittently. So, can I make this year any different? Well, it’s worth a try. One blog post per month is my aim, and starting on 2nd January has got to be positive! This, however, does not include the book reviews I am doing in my bid to read 55 books before I’m 55. This also works out to be about one per month.

Reading an article on the BBC website, we are more likely to stick to our resolutions if we involve others, either directly by doing something with another person or indirectly by telling people about it. Perhaps more interestingly, the article also talks about how we are driven by loss aversion rather than gain, meaning we are more likely to stick to a resolution if it re-captures something lost rather than starts something completely new. Finally, resolutions need to be realistic, which is of no great surprise. It seems my blogging falls into all those categories, it’s something I’ve dabbled with for a few years so isn’t completely new, I’m telling people through the blog and one post per month must surely be realistic (well, two including the book ones).

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My trusty running shoes – now not quite so white!

There are others though, one is to keep track of my running. In 2012, I set  myself the challenge of running 1000 miles during the year. I already ran on a fairly regular basis but had never tallied how many miles this was. I ran my thousandth mile in mid-December 2012 and felt very proud of myself. Whilst I have continued to run, I haven’t set any further targets so this is the year to run another 1000 miles. I don’t want to do any more because I know my knees and they won’t thank me for it! I do know that in 2012 it was a great motivator to get out on days that leant themselves far more to curling up on the sofa with a good book. For 2018, it’s a not-so-good and a good start as I didn’t run on New Year’s Day but I did run today (2nd Jan) in the rain. So, 3.5 miles done, 996.5 miles to go…

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The flabby bits – will these exercises work?

Linked to the running is increasing my core strength. As someone who runs on average 4 to 5 times per week I had hoped that would be all I need to do. But it doesn’t work like that and despite getting out in rain, hail, wind and occasional sun my middle is far flabbier than I would like. This is therefore the year that the core exercises will come to the rescue. In the spirit of the BBC article, I’ve told the family about this one and found a set of exercises that are reasonably quick and not muscle crunchingly painful, therefore hopefully realistic! This one I even started in 2017 (ok, I only did two sets of them between Christmas and New Year, but it’s a start!).

That’s enough for resolutions otherwise the realistic element will really go out of the window. There are plenty of other things I want to do, some of which fall into the loss aversion category but I do struggle to fit everything in as I still work full time (I’m working on that one, currently a 4 year mid-term plan!) so I’m not going to set myself up to fail. Anything I can do music wise, the piano and the flute particularly, will be a bonus.

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Tracking my running

The article ends with the assertion that those who rely on willpower alone will always fail, what is needed is boringly meticulous planning. If I say that I have set up a spreadsheet to track my running that should indicate how boring and meticulous I can be.

So, will I succeed – maybe follow me and you’ll find out!

 

9. Copy Cat by Alex Lake

Screen Shot 2017-12-29 at 18.14.00This book is a psychological thriller with the story focusing on Sarah, married with three children and living a happy life, who has her online identity copied by an unknown person. I liked the premise of this, how unsettling it must be for someone to pretend to be you online, in this case even more so as the stalker was able to take photos of the family and then post them online.

I really enjoyed the first half of this book as the suspense grew in how the stalker knew so much about Sarah and what they would do next. The motive was also unclear which added to the suspense – was it someone in Sarah’s past,  maybe linked to her husband or a random stalker who had taken a dislike to Sarah? It really could have been any of those. I felt there were a few holes in the plot, for example how little the police were able to find out about the fake account and how easily Sarah’s husband brushed off her fears and then believed that it was Sarah who was behind it all. But notwithstanding that it was a good read.

The latter part of the book however I found not so good and not so believable. Please stop reading now if you don’t want to know who the stalker was.

I admit I didn’t guess who the stalker was, but I knew it would be a most unlikely person and indeed it turned out to be so. Sarah’s best friend and neighbour who had been nothing but kindness itself for years turned out to be harbouring a grudge from their teenage years. This person, Jean, who had been a pillar of society and of whom no one suspected anything untoward was a psychopath. Jean had lost her husband a few years previously and selflessly taken on his two sons who were beautifully behaved and always well turned out. However, she had been subjecting these two boys to physical punishment, including locking them in the cellar, for years and had been responsible not only for her husband’s death but also the death of his first wife. It all felt a little far fetched to me.

Jean’s grudge against Sarah was that Sarah had helped her through an abortion and she had then not been able to have any children of her own. I thought this a disappointing motive, the way it was told by both Sarah and Jean was that Sarah was more supportive than anything else. However, Jean had decided it was Sarah’s fault though it was not clear why Jean had waited this long to get her revenge. The hate that Jean showed toward Sarah at the end of the book would have been very difficult if not impossible for her to hide over years.

The other disappointment was the conditions Sarah was kept in while Jean set up the scene to make it look like Sarah had committed suicide. Sarah was kept chained up in the basement with hardly any food or drink. Jean also subjected Sarah to physical violence that I feel sure would have rendered her in a state where she would be unable to think at all let alone plot a convoluted way out for herself.

The very end saw Sarah saved and re-united with her family while Jean escaped without a trace. I guess this was to keep the suspense going – would she return to finish the job off, but it didn’t work for me.

I was disappointed overall as this held so much promise to be a great story but it didn’t really deliver. However, many of the reviews I’ve read show that plenty of people thoroughly enjoyed this book, though others rather echo my own views. Sadly, I am not drawn to read other books by this author.