Monthly Archives: September 2013

Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian

Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian

I’m drifting with my reviews – even when I finish a book on or by Friday, as I did with #149 Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian, it’s not always possible to review it straight away. I got ahead for the posts while we were travelling, and then gave up when we got back to the UK, like we aren’t still living in the van. Really, life isn’t much different in Oxford than it was in Stockholm, apart from the weather, so I need to shape up. That said, I’m thinking of reading a bit of Ulysses while I’m in Ireland this week, so whatever you get next Friday, it’s unlikely to be a full review. Particularly since I haven’t even got a complete copy yet – mine had all the poetry and some of the speech missing, making it unnecessarily confusing.

Master and Commander is a carefully researched historical adventure story. It’s set in the Royal Navy and this, the first book in a long series, opens in 1800. Britain is at war with France (and Spain, and several other countries) and Jack Aubrey, lieutenant, is shipless. He encounters Stephen Maturin, and the two become friends and eventually take ship again, this time together, fighting for king and country.

Messing about in boats
I’m starting to feel I should have a tag for this, given the number of boating books I’ve read for this challenge. Master and Commander takes messing about in boats to a whole new level. The novel is set just after the French Revolution, during the Revolutionary Wars, which started in 1793, and just before they turned into the Napoleonic Wars in 1803. This is the era of grand sea battles, of Nelson and Trafalgar, of Wellington and Waterloo, although both are a few years in the future for these characters. It’s also the era of Jane Austen, who was writing at this time, and it’s worth remembering that although her novels and Regency romances are a sharp contrast to Master and Commander, their worlds would have coexisted.

One aspect of M&C that is strongly reminiscent of Austen’s work is the etiquette. The details differ but the rules behind the rules are strikingly similar. Hierarchy is as important on a naval vessel as in the drawing room, it transpires, and transgressions are punished brutally in both cases. In addition, the social worlds do overlap. Aubrey and Maturin meet at an elegant musical soiree, only rather than getting it from the woman’s point of view, as in Austen, we see it from the men’s.

The Irish Connection
Part of the reason I picked up M&C again this week was that Maturin is Irish-Catalan, and was part of the failed United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798. I know very little about Irish history – I tend to focus on wherever I am, and I’ve spent a total of about 4 days in Ireland, ever, which isn’t enough to scratch the surface. As with the Austen / O’Brian parallels, it was interesting to read about this other contemporary issue, and the effect it has on the characters. Maturin has to hide his past, now the rebellion has failed, and Aubrey can, therefore, easily give offense, being quite a John Bull, gung-ho English protestant.

All at sea
Honestly, most of this book went rather over my head. I believe that O’Brien has described things accurately, and he certainly makes an effort to explain new or technical terms – something a lot of period authors don’t do, throwing slang and archaic terms in like badges of honour. However I still didn’t always understand what was going on. I quite often couldn’t picture a scene, even – or perhaps especially – when things were explained at length. I found myself waiting for a character to react, so I’d know if something was good, bad or business as usual. I need labelled diagrams, I think, before I’ll really start to get it in my head. I could probably do better with another reading, but it was too long and not exciting enough to make that likely.

I broadly enjoyed the book, although I struggled. I think it’s a novel where it would help to watch the film, if it’s accurate, as it would give me a picture of what’s going on. I’ve seen plenty of old ships, from the Cutty Sark to Viking lonships, but I just haven’t enough of a clue. It’s like The Devil Wears Prada – I had to see the film to understand the clothes references as the author just can’t keep going ‘and just to be clear that’s from last season’s collection/ a breach of regulations/dangerously unsafe/immoral so it means that s/he’s due a whipping’.

Overall, I’d say this is a good book, and goes particularly well with trips to see the grand old ships. I didn’t find the book disturbing, but it doesn’t pull punches and there is a fair amount of gore, both during the battle scenes and the mishaps and cruelties of ordinary life.

There aren’t many women in the book – two, perhaps three – and they are shown purely in relation to the male characters. However, in this case I’m not complaining: it’s history, not the far flung future. I also thought the women were plausible and as rounded as minor male characters.

There were sailors of several nationalities and races on the ships, but it would take a closer reading than I managed to say anything useful about this. There were dozens of named characters, and most of the time I was unaware of who was what race or nationality, so perhaps that says enough. Or perhaps the characters of colour where whited up, or largely invisible – I could only keep track of about 5 characters so I don’t know.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Couch to 5k – reprise

Couch to 5k – reprise

I’ve started the Couch to 5k program — again.

The first time (the last time, the only time) I started the Couch to 5k was in July. I got all the way through to week 7 (although not in 7 weeks), did a week 8 level run (27 minutes non-stop) and then I stopped. I know why I stopped: it became much easier to stop than to continue.

When I started the program, my days were largely unscheduled, unhurried, and the weather was warm and sunny. It was easy to fit a run in, even if I put it off until late in the day. When I stopped, we were on the move, travelling every few days, and the weather had turned rainy. I did my last run when we were in Hamburg, about a week after the one before. Then, in mostly good ways, my days got busier. K now has a full time job in an actual office. We’re in England, and it has been raining. Staying in has been very, very easy.

Try again
The thing about stopping is that there’s no point at which that’s news. But to give an honest assessment of the program, I have to include the fact I stopped. I gave up. I did not complete the Couch to 5k program. At this point, I’m not sure if I will, if the podcasts and schedule still have meaning, if I’ll try to run 5km in my own time or set a different goal entirely.

The news, and the reason I’m typing, is that I’ve gone for a run again. I had another go. I didn’t follow the Couch to 5k podcast or a particular week of the program, but I did get out there and run. I ran along the river Thames near Oxford, at a place where it’s very pretty and quiet and a lot like Cambridge. I probably wouldn’t have walked there. The major advantage of running, so far as I can see, is that I see more places. Honestly, the only reason I went for a run yesterday was because K pointed out that we could go in Ireland, when we’re there, and that would be another country, making eight in total.

Fail better
Partly, I stopped running because I got bored, so I need to find a way to make it more interesting or I’ll stop again. Running for 60 seconds was scary and challenging. Running for 25 minutes non-stop is not, it turns out, intrinsically interesting, and leveling up from 25 to 27 minutes wasn’t exciting. The interval training at the beginning was more interesting but not thrilling. I doubt I’ll ever be a marathon runner, unless I figure out a way to read a book while I run. Maybe audio books would help, or a podcast – any suggestions?

Actually, now I think of it, I once interviewed a woman who runs marathons while knitting. Susie Hewer was an impressive person  to talk to, although she has a deceptively ordinary appearance, even on her blog, Extreme Knitting Redhead. Personally, I think knitting uses the same part of my brain as running, so they won’t stack well. That said, I can knit and walk and I haven’t fallen over while running yet, even when thinking quite hard, so maybe I’ll try it. I might have to buy some more yarn first though…

Failure is good enough
I’m quite pleased with my Couch to 5k progress. Heck, even putting on running shoes was a Big Scary Deal for this PE dropout. I’ve got to the stage where I can go for a run, and it’s not a big deal. I now believe I can run. When I started this, I didn’t believe I could run for so many minutes, even when I’d just done it. I thought it was a fluke, beginner’s luck, impossible to repeat. Now, I firmly believe that I can run for 27 minutes again – perhaps not right now, perhaps not tomorrow or this week, but one day soon – and that I can run for 30 minutes or 5km. I believe that, if I try and train, I can run for 10km or whatever goal I set. I’m not sure I want to – at my current pace, that would take, oh, roughly forever – but it’s a possible goal, and that’s rather exciting.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

I didn’t like #94 The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. If you did, I’d recommend Jonathan Livingston Seagull as I have similar problems with both books, and people who find one enjoyable or inspiring seem to enjoy the other.

The Alchemist is a fable, which is to say a story designed to impart a lesson. It follows the adventures of a man called Santiago. At the start of the novel, he is a shepherd in Spain when he hears a call that leads him to cross the sea and travel far from home, searching for a treasure he’s been promised. The story is the least important element of the book – more on the rest below.

Short book, long read
My Kindle estimates how long it’ll take me to finish a book. For The Alchemist, the initial estimate was just one or two hours, and yet it’s taken me over a week to finish it – long enough t that I’m writing this post Sunday night instead of Thursday. I think this might be a first, in the Big Read challenge, and I mention it because I think it says something about the strength of my reaction to the book.

I dislike the book strongly, because I believe it provides a false view of the world, and encourages readers to treat this view as reality. Also, the novel wasn’t magical enough for a good magical realism (I’m looking forward to rereading One Hundred Years of Solitude, which does this well) or realistic enough to be self-help.

A story of miracles, an age of charlatans
Santiago’s path in The Alchemist is guided throughout by miracles and magic. I don’t have a problem with magic in stories, even stories that are supposedly set in the real world. I do, however, have a problem with preaching based on those miracles. For example, early in the book, Santiago has a dream in which his Personal Legend is revealed to him. He is then visited by a magical personage who advises him to follow his dream, and the book bases it’s advice on this starting point.

While I do think that people should be brave, take some risks, have adventures, seize the day, and other proactive sound bites, I hate this beginning. Either the advice is (1) that you should treat your dreams as literal truth, if you have them twice (in which case, dinosaurs will be making a come back any day now, you heard it here first) or (2) you should only believe in your dreams when a miraculous mind-reader appears and tells you to. If you’re going to try this at home, kids, go for option 2.

You might argue that I’m being too literal. That the book is primarily about following your heart’s desire, about reaching for the stars, and it’s designed to be inspirational, rather than pragmatic. I do not begrudge anyone the enjoyment they get out of this. (Well, maybe only a little, because I’ve now had to read it a second time, thanks to people enjoying it enough to vote for it.)  However, the truth is that in the world we live in, if someone claims to be an ancient king who can read your dreams or an alchemist who can turn lead into gold, they are lying and you will get conned. It’s like buying a book titled: Wishing On Stars As A Profitable Career.

I do not believe

  1. That everyone has one true heart’s desire or life quest that never changes. Hell, that isn’t even true in The Sims 3, where you can set such things in ones and zeros
  2. That fulfilling such a quest or attaining fulfillment is time limited
  3. That ‘Everyone, when they are young, knows what their Personal Legend is.’
  4. That if men have quests, heart’s desires or grand projects, women don’t. Neither of the two women in this book travel more than a hundred steps from their door, and all they express a wish for is that Our Hero will come back and marry them.
  5. That ‘there is a force that wants you to realize your Personal Legend’ or that when someone went on such a quest, ”the entire universe made an effort to help him succeed’
  6. That ‘When you play cards the first time you are almost sure to win.’ (This is apparently the force mentioned above. It ‘whets your appetite with a taste of success’.)
  7. That ‘Everything in life is an omen’
  8. That ‘There’s no such thing as coincidence’
  9. That trying to read and follow omens, whether in the movement of birds, the rolling of dice or stones, or some other method is a reliable method for decision making, never mind route planning.
  10. That ‘intuition is really a sudden immersion of the soul into the universal current of life, where…we are able to know everything’
  11. That intuition is a good or reliable way of making complex decisions
  12. That everything on the Earth has a soul
  13. That the natural world is an imitation or copy of a paradise

I am an atheist. I don’t believe in God (guiding hand or otherwise) or souls (human, animal or otherwise). Perhaps this means I was bound to have problems with this book. However, there’s strong evidence that simply longing, wishing, praying or hoping for something does not cause magical kings to appear or populate your dreams with accurate treasure maps. If someone can give me evidence to the contrary, I’ll listen. But it needs to be good, because the Wishing Doesn’t Work team has come up with sterling work, and many experiments you can try yourself at home, to produce the same results.

Unsatisfying story
Because the premises the quest is based on don’t ring true, I found both the story and the message unsatisfying. It’s very clearly written as a fable, by which I mean a story instructing the reader on how to live. Part of the reason I find it frustrating and distasteful, I think, is that there’s some good stuff in there. Yes, strive. Yes, adventure. Yes, hold out for love that loves you as you are, adventures and all. But no to the rest of it.

Santiago is about 20 when the story opens. He has no responsibilities, he has cast off his ties, and is free to wander the world. So wander he does. I think choosing such an example weakens the story considerably. If you believe that people should take care of each other, of their children, for example, then having him be young and free doesn’t show how we deal with the complex social ties that bind us to other human beings. Or if you believe that these should all be severed, brutally, in favour of living the dream, then show that. Show us the extreme form of your thesis, so that we can understand fully.

Worse – in terms of the story – pretty much every time Santiago faces a big problem, he’s rescued by something magical. It’s rather like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in that sense. Santiago has long conversations with things that don’t really talk, which tell him things that aren’t possible, which turn out to be true. It’s like watching someone in a video tell you how to climb a mountain, starting with ‘step one, get on this clearly blue screened magic carpet.’

Just cross
Perhaps I’ve missed the point of the book entirely, but mostly, as I read it, it pissed me off. Even – or particularly – the phrase ‘Personal Legend’. It’s almost nonsense in English. A legend is usually an ancient, untrue, story, sometimes it’s a motto. Neither is the use Coelho (or his translator, perhaps) is putting it to, but explanation is not given, only example.

The thing is, I’ve gone wandering. Like Santiago, I’ve longed to wander, cast off expectations and material things (including a yarn stash that must be worth at least half a sheep) and gone to look at the world and see what’s in it. That’s good. But it’s not the only possible form of fulfillment, something the book doesn’t show. Oh, and I’m a woman, and I’m not a prize in someone else’s quest, another thing the book doesn’t show (and that I’m angry about).

I can picture at least 13 fabulous lives I could have had, and having chosen or chanced into this one doesn’t make the other dozen less brilliant, less fulfilling. Moreover, I’m not the same person I was at 20, which to me suggests that we should, at least, have a new Personal Legend for each age, a proposition which, if you have to sell all your belongings and spend three years travelling thousands of miles, would rapidly lead to the breakdown of society.

Oh, I’m just cross about this book. I think it’s quackery. I think it’s trading on the malaise everyone gets sometimes, the feeling that life could be better or that adventure is over the horizon, and peddling a cure that won’t work. Romance novels are criticized for offering an unrealistic portrait of love and relationships, particularly marriage. Well, this book is the equivalent of the worst of that genre, offering, to my mind, an unrealistic portrait of travel, of striving for something valuable, and of fulfillment.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Ruthless minimalist gets rid of all the things

Ruthless minimalist gets rid of all the things

I believe that there are times when you accumulate stuff and times when you get rid of stuff, and times when you shouldn’t do much of either. We moved repeatedly (five times in five years, I think) so even before we got the van I was so sick of schlepping boxes that I was determined to pare them down. As a result, I’ve been in a getting rid of things phase for several years now. I’m also sentimental, frugal, crafty and a just-in-case hoarder, so in some ways getting rid of things is contrary to my nature. I go at it in lots of different ways.

Start small, take it slow
For me, getting rid of stuff started small. Take books, for example. I read a lot, and usually buy a hundred books a year, sometimes more. At uni, I decided (in radical contradiction to my pack-rat childhood) not to keep books I didn’t like. Then I joined Bookcrossing, and started giving away books I did like, once I’d read them. Sharing is fun! The tipping point was getting a Kindle, when I could, for the very first time, picture a house without a wall of books. I started getting rid of book cases, and now we pretty much only have library books and caravan books with us. Plus the thousand books on my Kindle, of course.

Do it in a big rush
Slow and steady doesn’t always work. We got rid of all our furniture in a rush, giving most of it away or selling it within a couple of weeks. Once we’d decided not to store everything, we asked friends what they might want. Some of them suggested things we hadn’t thought to sell, at which point we sort of went ‘huh’. In the end, we got rid of of everything, leaving a couple of precious items on long-term loan where they would be used.

Set up an Amazon seller or eBay account
Sometimes, when you realise how much money you could get for something, you realise you’d rather have the money than the thing – or you may see how cheap it would be to replace. Once you’ve decided to sell something, it’s easier to give it away (I think) as you’ve mentally detached from it. It’s stock, not a part of your image. We screwed this up slightly, and wound up posting our final items from France, a move that lost us most of our profits on those sales, but we did manage to turn a box of never-be-played-again games into a week or two of site fees.

Start a ‘to go’ box
I usually have a box or a bag of stuff to go to charity. When I try on a shirt and hate the way it looks or K finds a kitchen implement that drives him crazy, or we find something in a cupboard we never use, it goes straight in the bag. If we need it, it’s there, if not, when the bag is full, we take it to a charity shop. I don’t have this in the van, and it means I’ve hung onto, and hidden in a nook or cranny, some things I don’t need or like any more.

When you could lend, give
If you’re lending someone something, consider giving it to them instead. Then you don’t have to worry about getting it back, or getting it back damaged, and when they’re done, they can pass it on.

You can buy it again
If you have too much stuff, whatever that means, then you live somewhere and somewhen that stuff is easy to come by. No one complains about too much water in a desert – you do that in a flood. So remember how easy it was to get all this stuff, and tell yourself you can get it again if you need it. Give yourself permission, even a budget.

Just one box
If you’re crafty and frugal, have small kids, do DIY or any of a hundred other hobbies and projects, there’s a lot of almost-rubbish, like empty washing up bottles for Blue Peter projects, or scraps of yarn, that accumulates and seems like it would come in useful. Most of it doesn’t. My strategy, and I mostly stick with this, is to pick a good volume – one kitchen drawer, one plastic box, one shoe box, one crate – and get rid of anything that won’t fit.

Throw things away
I am really bad at this. I hate putting things in land fill so I’ve delegated this entire section to K. I sort stuff out (particularly childhood clutter) merrily (and delusionally) thinking ‘oh, this would be good for craft’ or ‘someone can use this’ and he ruthless bins all of it, saving about 2 things for the charity shop. And this works, as long as he doesn’t tell me about all the crap he’s just thrown out.

Put things in smaller boxes
There is no way I’m getting rid of my yarn stash. No way! Not happening. But every few months, when I sort through it, I find that it nearly fits in one less box. So I usually get rid of a few things, until it does fit in one less box. I do this with clothes, too. It’s a good way of getting rid of a few non-essentials by focusing on making space for the things you want to use. I think it would work well in the kitchen, but that’s K’s domain so I haven’t tried. He does not share my enthusiasm for putting things in boxes.

Go slow on things that can’t be replaced
I’m softhearted about old toys. About books I loved when I was a kid. About things I’ve made. I keep these things. I tuck them into boxes, or display them on shelves. I take photographs of them, when I remember, because I don’t want to lose them and sometimes I cry or rage when they break or get damaged. I know it’s not smart to tie your heart to little bits of plastic or wood, but for me it’s also impossible not to.

Be ruthless with things that are sentimental traps
Try not to attach importance to everything you’ve ever been given. I love my mum to bits, and she has a great taste in clothes, but when I physically or mentally outgrow something she’s given me, I get rid of it. Otherwise I’d have a whole extra wardrobe of things I never wear. Actually, right now, I do have a whole wardrobe of things I haven’t worn in at least 3 months, as I left a whole bunch of clothes at Mum’s when we came away in the van again. But it’s my glass house and I can throw stones if I want to.

Take lots of photos
Maybe you won’t need to keep that faded sundress if you have a photo of yourself, smiling, in the sun that faded it.

Do what feels right
It’s hard to follow your own right path. It’s easier to follow a set of rules, or to feel bad about not quite following them. There’s no right about of stuff, no adventure kit that suits everyone on the planet. Even at the most basic level, whether you prioritize food or medicine or shelter will depend on whether you’re hungry or ill or living somewhere cold. The golden rule, if there is such a thing, is don’t let your stuff bring you down.

Middelfart, Fyn, Denmark

Middelfart, Fyn, Denmark

Wooden dock extends from sandy beach into sea, clear and still reflecting clouds above

On our way out of Denmark, we stopped by the sea for the first time. We’d swum in the harbour at Copenhagen and Stockholm (in designated swimming areas, not in the shipping lanes) but we hadn’t yet been faced with the whole sea, wide blue water. The weather was stormy and rainy, but cleared for long enough that we could have a quick dip.

The caravans near ours were embedded, with full awnings, canvas fences and even canvas garden sheds. We were passing through, but I can see the appeal of stopping, of spending the whole summer in this place.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis

I didn’t like #9 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis when I was a kid. I read most of the Narnia books eventually but probably only once or twice each, simply because they were there. So unlike many of the books I’ve reread for this challenge, I was pleasantly surprised. The book wasn’t bad – problematic, of course – but didn’t seem to justify my strong dislike at the time.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe tells the story of four children. Evacuated during the Second World War, they find themselves in a mysterious old house. Exploring, they come across a magical wardrobe, which acts as a door to another realm. Narnia, the land through the wardrobe, is a magical place full of talking animals, dryads and magic, where giants walk the land and people can be turned to stone in an instant. The children must fight to break the land free from its 100 year winter.

Unusually, I remember reading the Narnia Chronicles. We only had odd copies, sort of passing through, but my brother had a friend whose parents were friends with my parents. If they’d had a child older than my brother, it might have been perfect. As it was, I was often bored at their house. I don’t remember them having other kids’ books – probably those were kept in the boys’ rooms – but the Narnia ones were on the landing, where I could hide and read. They were surrounded by adult books, second shelf from the bottom on a white floor-to-ceiling book shelf at the top of the stairs.

I didn’t like the books much to start with, and I don’t, having reread this one, know why. I did like The Horse and His Boy and The Magician’s Nephew was the next best one. Otherwise, I wasn’t interested, and I went off them entirely when, age about 12, I discovered that they were a Christian allegory, with Aslan standing in for Jesus. Learning that made me feel like I’d been duped.

The religious elements also bother me as an adult. Everyone ‘just knows’ that Aslan is special, and good and evil are determined pretty much entirely by gut feeling. You don’t need to see the traitor betray their friends because you’ll get a gut feeling. You can tell if someone has been tainted by evil by looking into their eyes. I think this is horrific, for two reasons. One, it suggests that if you get a strong bad feeling about someone, they are evil. Two, it completely excludes anyone who doesn’t feel a rapture walking into a church, suggesting that if you don’t, this religion is not for you. What I’m saying, I guess, is that as propaganda it seems poorly aimed and poorly launched.

The the sexism, the talking animals and the real problem
As The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was first published in 1950, it’s no great surprise that it’s sexist in an Enid Blyton way. The girls go on all the adventures, and step back when one person needs to fight something and step forward when one person needs to be tender or weep. Lewis says things like “battles are ugly when women fight”, as though they were so pretty when it’s all boys together.

The talking animals are inconsistent, as is typical, but more worryingly the magical creatures are used to a line between good and evil, putting some races on one side and some on the other. It’s a lazy, racist thing to do. It’s deterministic, as well – the villain is villainous because “There isn’t a drop of real human blood in the Witch…that’s why she’s bad all through.” She’s half Jinn (descended from Adam’s first wife, Lilith, apparently) and half giant. So she must be bad. Given it’s apparently as inevitable as a rock falling downwards (more so, I’m sure there are levitation spells in Narnia) it seems unfair to punish her so severely.

But none of this is unexpected, given the age and religious overtones. The real problem, to my mind, with this book is that there’s no strong positive to balance these flaws. All the characters are a bit wet. The villain is villainous, but ineffectual. Aslan is omnipotent. One child is pegged as evil from the get go, and does moderately evil (thoughtless) things. The others are good and do good things. Everything is, as predicted ‘finally defeated before bedtime’. At no point did I wonder if the ending would be other than happy. At no point did I think any of the characters were in real peril. Plus, they don’t ever seem to change, except through a magic conversion. There’s no growth or character development even across the series, if I remember correctly. The book just isn’t that good, although Narnia is an interesting world to visit.

I’m not sorry I read the book. It only took an hour to get through the whole thing, so it wasn’t a big investment. But I don’t really recommend it.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

I want it, I need it, I have to have it

I want it, I need it, I have to have it

I don’t think you can need something unless you know what you need it for.

There’s a temptation to divide stuff into ‘things everyone needs’ and ‘frivolous wants’. Sometimes this is for a good reason – the NHS, for example, can’t fund every request so they make blanket decisions, some of which sound quite cruel, about what’s a ‘need’ (perhaps sight in one eye) and what’s a ‘want’ (sight in both eyes). While it may be a useful schema for large organizations, I think it’s entirely unhelpful for individuals (or at least this individual) as your unique list of ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ are going to look decidedly odd to others. I’m all for being frugal and decluttering but you won’t help me by reducing my yarn budget to zero or tossing my stash out.

Don’t ask ‘do I need this?’
Most minimalist or decluttering or frugal blogs suggest you divide your purchases into ‘wants’ and ‘needs’. You should buy needs, but you shouldn’t buy wants. Many of them have a clear cut list of what counts as a need, and this is where it gets messy. It’s fairly uncontroversial to say ‘No one needs a £200 bag’ and ‘everyone needs food’ but that’s not really good enough because it’s too hard to apply. I’m vegetarian, so I’d say ‘no one needs meat’ but I definitely count cheese as an essential, which my vegan friends don’t.

‘Do I need this?’ is a hard question to answer on the fly as by the time you’re asking it you’re already in the mood to buy something. And the true answer is, if you take it to an extreme, that you don’t ‘really need’ any of the things you’re going to buy today. Most people can even put off eating or taking prescription meds for a day or two without suffering an enormous harm (I am not saying this is a good idea) so it can be hard to justify buying anything. My brain tends to fail to answer this question sensibly, either going for ‘don’t buy anything, ever’ and walking out of the shop without, for example, shoes which keep the winter out, or going ‘nothing’s a need so you may as well buy it’ and walking out with the shop with shoes that don’t keep the winter out.

Do ask ‘what do I need this for? does it help me meet my goals?’
As an easy to apply rule to help you stick to your budget or keep your home clutter-free, ‘what do I need (or want) this for?’ is a good question to ask, particularly paired with ‘does it help me meet my goals?’ Friends and family can ask you this without sounding (too) judgmental, so that’s a plus. For example, faced with the shoe buying situation described above, I might say ‘I don’t like having wet or cold feet, I want/need shoes that keep wind, rain, snow and slush out. Oh, and I want to stick to my budget, and the shoes must be veggie.’ It’s easier to put the pretty but impractical / deeply discounted but uncomfortable / practical but overpriced shoes back on the shelf after that.

Using this method I might go shoe shopping and walk out of the shoe shop with no shoes, then straight into a yarn shop and buy yarn. That’s OK. The point is to buy things which meet my personal goals, remember? So if I can (truthfully) say: ‘I want to knit a present for someone / socks for me / a hat for K / a knitted uterus and I need more yarn to be able to do that’ then buying yarn makes sense. The idea is that you have the goal or the value, the plan for your life, and you buy stuff to suit those ideals rather than walking into a shop and letting the shop tell you what to do with your life and money.

You already know what you value
You might not be as explicit about goal setting as I am, but I’m sure you already know what you value. The problem is that in the heat of the moment, tempted by a great sale or a pretty ball of yarn, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the false sense of urgency, and make decisions that don’t match those goals or values.

Sure, this system can result in some odd conversations, but it does mean that when I buy something just for pretty, I know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. K and I both have goals or values that might seem frivolous to other people but that’s OK. They’re not things I’d spend the rent money on, but  I definitely want to have lots of yarn from lots of countries (and knit some of it, occasionally) and it makes me happy to have pretty new clothes. I value those things, so I spend money on them. But I also value sticking to my budget and buying ethical, local and/or hand made products, and if I remind myself of those three things when faced with a sale, then I’m more likely to make a smart choice. And to have more money for yarn.

A day in Hamburg

A day in Hamburg

What does this remind you of?

Part of the river, a boat and the Alsterfontane in Hamburg. Fountain is a single jet of water shooting straight up.

Is it this?

Lake Geneva with Jet d'Eau and mountains. Fountain is a single jet of water shooting straight up.

How about this?

Hamburg riverside houses, big old buildings


Does it look a bit like this?

Geneva lakeside with big old buildings


The centre of Hamburg is pretty, and strikingly like a smaller version of Geneva. The first picture in each case is Hamburg and the second is Geneva. The fountains are the Alsterfontane on the Binnenalster (Inner Alster) and Jet d’Eau in Lake Geneva.

It turns out that the Alsterfontane was modeled on the Jet d’Eau, but is less than half as high (60m instead of 140m) which I think makes sense given how much smaller the water area is. It does really draw your attention to the architectural similarities in the surrounding buildings, the lines of trees and even the pleasure boats are all very familiar.

I don’t have strong recollections of the centre of Hamburg. We’d had a long day, seen thousands of tiny models, and were only in the town for about 8 hours. We did:

  • Go to Miniatur Wunderland, which is brilliant
  • Go to the Museum of Emigration
  • Go shopping
  • Eat indifferent pizza
  • Wander round

Emigrants, not immigrants
Ballinstadt, the Museum of Emigration, records the history of the port of Hamburg, when it was one of the largest emigration points in Europe. People would travel thousands of kilometers overland to take ship from Hamburg. As something like 90% of emigrants went to the USA via New York, the museum is seen as a sister to Ellis Island in New York, where the story of the new arrivals continues.

I’m fascinated by people travelling, particularly when that meant leaving everything behind and never coming back. We’d also been to see Ellis Island and its museum when we were in New York in 2011. Ballinstadt was well worth a visit. Much of the museum was translated into English, as well as being shown in German. Most of the videos weren’t, but most of the signs and I think all of the audio recordings were. I grumble when museums aren’t translated fully or well, because so very many of them are that I’ve come to expect it but really it’s an extraordinary effort to go to.

I should really ask K about this, as I got a coffee and read my book while he went round most of the shops. However, even with my limited interest it was clear that Hamburg is a good – possibly great – place to shop. You could go from H&M to Gucci in about a block, and there was a strong mix of big chain and name shops with boutiques mixed in. Of course, the only shop I went into (I think) was a sports shop, where I bought a new bike helmet, so I could be wrong and the interiors might have been identical and dull. K will correct me in the comments, no doubt.

I didn’t go in any yarn shops, see any yarn graffiti or spot any hand knitting while I was in Hamburg. So from that point of view it was a total waste! We had a good day though, and Google tells me there are several yarn shops, if you can separate the German city from the  towns in the USA.

I think we missed a trick here, because I was tired and grouchy enough that I picked the first cafe I saw to grab a coffee in, and then we wound up having dinner there. The food was OK but not good or bad enough that it’s worth finding the name. However, later on we saw lots of interesting little restaurants, some in odd places or with lovely river views, so if I were to visit again I’d pick somewhere more exciting to eat at.

I couldn’t possibly pretend we’ve seen all Hamburg has to offer. Each of the things we visited were in very different parts of the city, so I felt like we were just passing through, cherry picking our sights. We had a good day though, and although I haven’t seen Hamburg on any of the ‘places to see before you die’ lists, it was well worth a visit. As I’ve said before, it’s an excellent place to stop if you’re coming out of Denmark and heading south by car or rail. I’m not sure I’d spend a week, but there was plenty to interest us had we stayed an extra day or two. And the night life, which we didn’t sample, is supposed to be vibrant, like Amsterdam.

Brighton beach

Brighton beach

It’s been raining all day today. It has rained so much that the ducks from the river came up to sit in a puddle outside our van. (They moved on when I got the camera out, sadly, so I have an awkward picture of half a duck which isn’t worth sharing.)

This makes it all the harder to believe that on Friday we were in Brighton and went for a dip in the sea. Not only that, it was nice enough to sit around on the beach for a while afterwards. And now I’ve got the heating on in the van.
Waves crash on the brown pebble beach under a sky full of white fluffy clouds


Brighton’s seafront is most famous for the pier, but I prefer the beach. It’s not a comfortable, sandy beach, though. It’s acres of pebbles and they’re quite sharp on the feet when you go to bathe. You also have to be careful not to go swimming at Brighton beach when it’s too rough. The first day we went it was placid as a pool. The second, Friday, the lifeguards marked as fine, but it was still rough getting in and out, with quite big waves. Not a good day for little ones. Saturday I took the photo above.

The other thing to watch out for is that you don’t accidentally wander into the naturist beach. (If you’re going to go, do it deliberately, with confidence. Otherwise you’ll wind up hopping around with your jeans tangled around your shoe or something.) It’s got a great big bank of pebbles around it and big signs, all of which I would quite happily have walked past without spotting if it hadn’t been for K standing back and going ‘Er… darling… mind you don’t walk into that sign…’

Online sabbatical, week one

Online sabbatical, week one

Well, if you’ve been following on the blog or Facebook, you may not have noticed much change from normal. It started off well, but we’ve been in Brighton for three days, without any internet access at all. Stupidly, I even managed to press ‘safe draft’ not ‘schedule’ on the Big Read post for last Friday. I’ve corrected that now, but not a great start!

Two things have come out of the project so far. First, I’m deliberately spending a little more time online, and that’s been good. I’ve been working to reply to personal emails and tweets and whatnot quicker. So that’s good. It does take time though, and more time than I think. An obvious lesson, perhaps, but one I seem to have to learn over and over again.

I took a couple of days offline entirely, not even checking email, which is the complete antithesis to the project. Now that we’re back in the UK where I typically have at least email on my phone, there’s the temptation to check it every five minutes, but never actually reply to anything as replying on my phone is a pain. I hadn’t thought that culling this little bit of internet use out would make a difference, but it does. Every time I check my email, I think about work, things to do, people to call, all the stuff that clutters up my brain because I can’t action it now but it does need to get done. So if I check my email every hour, which makes me think about work for 10 minutes, I think about work all day, even when I’m not doing any. And that’s a waste.

Laura Vanderkam described a concept she calls ‘uncontaminated free time‘, and I think that’s what applies here. Uncontaminated free time is, in her description, time where you are completely free to do what you want to do. So if you’re stuck in the house, waiting for a delivery, that might be contaminated free time (particularly if what you really want to do is go for a run). Or if you’re watching TV while making dinner, then maybe you did get to see your show, but you couldn’t fully focus on it.

It’s a useful way of measuring equality in a relationship, whether it’s at home or at work. Time to focus, whether on a personal project, TV show or work can easily be contaminated by a ringing phone, children needing things and other running interruptions. It can even, I’ve discovered, be contaminated by interrupting yourself, checking email, tweeting or otherwise snapping yourself out of what you want to be doing (sitting on the beach, enjoying the view) by doing something you don’t need to be doing (checking email on a Saturday).