The power of ‘we’


Blog Action Day is here, and the Power of We is making some noiseIt’s Blog Action Day today, and a good opportunity to talk about something I’d wanted to mention anyway. When I worked at the University, I met a lady called Sylvia Gardiner. She’d visited Ethiopia when her son was working there, was hugely moved by the poverty she found there, and instead of doing nothing about it, or sending a few parcels, she got down to it and founded a charity called LUCIA to support women and girls in the country.

Of course, this is about the power of Sylvia as much as the power of ‘we’, but she’s so good at encouraging people to take part and support the charity in whatever way they can. While I worked at the library, I was proud to provide (free) minuting services for their meetings for a year, and when I started running in races it seemed a foregone conclusion as to which charity I would choose to support.

I’ve raised over £1000 for LUCIA in the time I’ve been running for them – mainly the Birmingham Half Marathon (or Great Birmingham Run as it’s called now). I benefit them and they benefit me – how’s that for the Power of We? Because I might be making money to support people, but there’s nothing like having those people to think of if I’m making a fuss or whining a bit when I’m running 13.1 miles. Not with a herd of goats that are my only livelihood, not with a tottering pile of stuff to sell, not with water I’ve dragged from a well, not trying to work out how to feed my family or get to school, but well-fed, warm and comfortable, with expensive running kit and a good lifestyle.

And the power of we works so well with a small charity. I’m not worried about how much of the money I raise goes to admin costs or buys something different from what I thought. If I choose, I can ask the LUCIA committee what my money has actually gone towards, and they can tell me, “You put a roof over the head of 30 schoolgirls for 6 months”, or whatever their current project is. How wonderful is that! And everything is good, grass-roots stuff: a goat to start a herd, help setting up a credit union, helping people to help themselves.

When you watch these big race events on the telly and you see all the ‘fun runners’ (horrible phrase!) streaming past, that’s the Power of We, too. Imagine how much money all those people are raising for their chosen charity.

My chosen charity is LUCIA. I doubt I’ll ever go to Ethiopia. But I can help a few fortunate people support a few people out of poverty, and that feels pretty powerful to me.

The Power of We is this year’s theme for Blog Action Day. I found out about Blog Action Day from Coral Musgrave – thanks, Coral! If you would like to sponsor me as I run my fifth Birmingham Half Marathon, please click on the link to my Justgiving page or this delightful pic of me running for LUCIA a couple of years ago. Thank you!


On getting slummocky


Working desk

Slummocky is a great word, isn’t it. I (re?)discovered it when reading Stella Gibbons’ “Nightingale Wood”. To be slummocky is to behave in an indolent or careless way, and a slummock is a slovenly person.

Now, of course, I’m NOT slovenly or careless or indolent. But I tell you what I have been doing, and that’s letting the admin slide.

Not the invoices: no, of course not. I’m not actually stupid, and I would like my money to come in nice and regularly, thank you. And we all know that I run my accounts and do my tax return almost obscenely promptly every year.

But there are other things: deeper, darker, murkier things, which must be done when you’re running your own business. Things like Bank Reconciliations. And like all admin or indeed everyday things, they are far better done regularly, in small doses, rather than in one great slummocky lump when you have started to panic about the huge bulk of them waiting to engulf you …

Bank reconciliations

The basic principle of the bank reconciliation is that you go through your accounts and your bank statement, and make sure they match up. A bit like the old-fashioned practice of balancing your cheque book – and we all do it to some extent, I’m sure, popping in to check the bank account online and make sure there are no unusual or incorrect transactions.

My friend Aly Mead at Silicon Bullet has written a great article on this subject; it’s particularly good to read the article if you do your accounts in Sage or a system like that. I run my accounts via a spreadsheet (which I do keep scrupulously up to date) recording invoices raised and paid on one sheet and payments and charges on another.

Basically, I turn these two sheets into one long list of incomings and outgoings, listed by transaction date (i.e. the date the invoice was paid or payment made) (Spreadsheet A) and then I download a spreadsheet version of my bank statement (Spreadsheet B), and compare the two. I write the line number of the item on Spreadsheet A into a column on Spreadsheet B and vice versa, and then I rather satisfyingly colour them in green. In a basic version, the two look like this:

Bank reconciliation example

Even though the entries aren’t quite in the same order, I have matched them all up, and the running total is the same for both. I pop the accounts spreadsheet into the same order as the bank account spreadsheet at the end (I do this by sorting the spreadsheet by that column) and the two should match up.

Keeping up with the admin

If you do this every month, it’s simple. It’s like housework and ironing and all those other chores (actually, I never do ironing, but that’s probably for another time). I only have between 20 and about 35 transactions per month. Which is fine when it’s one or two months, not so great when it’s … erm … nine.

And there are always little tweaky issues. I have missed putting a couple of payments in the right place on my main in/out spreadsheet, and forgot to record the info about a mystery payment, all resolved with the client a couple of months ago. I’ve also forgotten to pay myself back for membership of a website that I paid for using my own credit card. There is probably only one little issue per month, but when there are a few months to go through …

The other thing I’ve been a bit lax about is moving payments from other places. I have a PayPal account and a few regulars and one-off clients pay me by PayPal. I used to withdraw each payment immediately to my bank account, so it created one line on my bank statement which matched at most one in and one out on my accounts spreadsheet. But I’ve let these build up before withdrawing, which means I’ve got one line on my bank statement which matches five or six sets of incomings and fees on my accounts spreadsheet.

That will be changing, too.

Reforming my ways

I wrote this article to remind myself how hideous it is doing your bank reconciliation if you leave it too long. It’s taken me a good few hours and given me a thumbing headache. Don’t be slummocky: little and often wins through!

Do share any tips you have for making yourself do this stuff, by the way!

Book reviews – Nightingale Wood, The Wedding Group, All Points North, Arabella

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And finally we’re on to October’s reads and a new picture of my TBR as of 30 September / 1 October. I’ve started the month off with some great ones, so four for the price of three in this set of reviews!

Stella Gibbons – “Nightingale Wood”

(26 Jan 2012)

Another charity shop buy. An engaging and absorbing but slightly odd novel – it does satirise (religion, over-use of psychology in books when it’s staring you in the face … ) as Gibbons is known for doing in her best-known work, “Cold Comfort Farm”, but can also be read ‘straight’ as a country house / family novel. There ware some awkward references to Jewish people, but then again this is of its time,  and it could of course be satirising the characters whose experiences are being described; it’s hard to tell. It also plays with whom our sympathies are meant to lie – the ‘heroine’ of the novel is introduced in a fairly sympathetic light, newly widowed and down on her luck, forced to move in with her forbidding in-laws, but undermined, and her sisters-in-law become less monstrous and more human. And it plays with ideas of Shakespeare and romance, too, with dashing heroes fatally undermined by their flaws, romantic woods complete with hermits, etc. So, overall intriguing and entertaining.

Elizabeth Taylor – “The Wedding Group”


A good one, I thought, although some don’t rate it among her master works. I like the undertones of Iris Murdoch, and wasn’t the only one to notice this in the Year of Elizabeth Taylor LibraryThing Virago Group I belong to. Cressy longs to escape the stifling atmosphere of the ‘free living’ artistic commune in which she’s been raised. But, lost living on her own above an antique shop, she has soon gone from frying pan to fire as she meets and marries the older journalist, David, and encounters his mother, Midge, trying to hard to demonstrate that she isn’t clingy and always somehow getting her own way. When Cressy gets pregnant, even needing her mother-in-law to alert her to her condition, it’s certainly all that Midge could want.

Seen with a very clear eye to the nuances of married life and changing expectations. I loved Mrs Brindle, the go between and village maven, although the secondary characters were not all as rich and vital as they have been in earlier Taylor novels. The Murdoch parallels were legion: weird siblings, pale, pre-Raphaelite cousins, father in a frowsty home in London – although the book with the most parallels in the artistic sense, The Good Apprentice, was written many years later, this is very interesting.

Simon Armitage – “All Points North”

(21 January 2000)

Another Armitage read before going to see him at the Book Festival. This is an excellent collection of autobiographical (?) pieces about The North (mainly), including a marvellous day trip to Iceland with his Mum. Like his poetry, concrete (in language rather than form) and blunt, using down-to-earth words and images that nevertheless convey precision, beauty and emotion. Sometimes moving, sometimes downright funny: I’m glad I’ve been compelled to re-read this.

My review from April 2000:

“A delightful, wry, runny, lyrical, never-too-whimsical look at the North, as seen through this excellent poet’s eyes. The use of the 3rd person took a while to get used to, but this wonderful book is both absorbing and rewarding”.

Georgette Heyer – “Arabella”

(25 February 2012 – Bookcrossing)

One of the best and most rich Heyers. Impoverished Arabella is sent off to her godmother’s in London to hunt for a husband. On the way she meets Robert Beaumaris, the Nonpareil, who has the power to make or break someone’s launch into society. Jousting with him verbally, an unfortunate untruth escapes her, which is spread by the usual faithful sidekick; she then has  a bewilderingly good reception in the capital. But personality will out, and Beaumaris is charmed by Arabella’s kindness to people and animals and … well, you know everything will come out for the best, but we have a lovely time getting there. Lots of great cant and argot, and a very good dog: a real tour de force, showing off the immense amount of research the author did and her facility with inserting it into the text quite naturally.

Book reviews – Drina’s Dancing Year, Texasville, Selected Poems

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September turned into a bumper month for reading, which is handy, as it also managed to turn into a bumper month for book buying. The TBR shelf was looking so good in this September picture but you’ll have seen October’s version by now …

Jean Estoril – “Drina’s Dancing Year”

(26 January 2012, Stratford)

Sequel to “Ballet for Drina”, which I reviewed on my old LiveJournal blog. We find our heroine installed in London, cheerfully still in contact with her solid friend, Jenny, who has given up ballet dancing and aims to become a farmer, and thinking about auditions for the Dominick Ballet School, where her mother studied and danced. Of course she does get into a ballet school, then it’s trials, tribulations and hard work all the way. But I like the down-to-earth quality of these books – having sensible friends and sticking up for one another is encouraged, and success never comes without hard work, plus it’s not always A Good Thing to have what is known as “a temperament”. Very beguiling reading on a poorly day!

Larry McMurtry – “Texasville”

(09 April 2000, America)

A re-read of this second book in the Last Picture Show series, as I build up to reading the newly acquired fourth and fifth volumes. It’s thirty years since the events of “The Last Picture Show”. Duane and Sonny are still in Thalia; Duane’s married to the terrifying but wonderful Karla, and Jacy’s rumoured to be back in town. Depression and boredom are rife as the oil recession hits,and everyone in town seems to be sleeping with the wrong person. It’s a depressing but moving slice of small town life, pinned loosely around preparations for the town’s centennial celebrations, even though the original county town, the Texasville of the title, has disappeared into the dust. The book has an open, fluid structure that mirrors that of many of the marriages portrayed, and there are some great wild kids and set pieces – who could forget the tumbleweed stampede? (well, I had, in the 12 years since I last read this). The side characters such as the magnificent Ruth Popper, with her marathon running, make this a full and rich read. Amusingly, Danny Deck has a cameo, or his house did. Danny is the hero of “All My Friends are Going to be Strangers” and later on, “Some Can Whistle” – McMurtry pops characters from one book into another a lot; Cadillac Jack has his own book and appears in another one.

My review from April 2000:

Another of his wonderful books – this one comes between “The Last Picture Show” and “Duane’s Depressed” and we see the tragi-comic life of Thalia (the tumbleweed stampede being a comedy high point). Characters are so, so believable, as are the sprawling events.

Simon Armitage – “Selected Poems”

(28 September 2012 – Kindle)

I picked this up because I’d been invited to go and see Armitage perform at the Book Festival on 5 October – my friend, Sian, helped out with the book stall so got guest list tickets. I’m really bad at arranging to go to things, so this was great (thank you again, Sian!).

Armitage is one of the few poets I enjoy reading. He’s sometimes raw, but the poems are always beautifully crafted and forged out of everyday language and sometimes startling metaphors. Some of them were a little brutal and had to be skimmed, but this collection from his various books of poetry was an excellent read, and made me look forward to the event.

But … how CAN I be ill?


I have been asked before “What do you do if you’re ill?” And then I WAS ill, last week. Just a cold, but not very nice.

Obviously I don’t get paid sick days, being self-employed (I have looked into this, with the help of ace accountant, Emily Coltman, from Freeagent and discovered that there is a similar thing to Statutory Sick Pay that you can claim if you’re self-employed). But the odd day or two just get dealt with, basically. Anyway, here’s how I cope with being ill and being self-employed.

Don’t get ill

This is the main one. And it’s not an admonition or a command: it should really read “I don’t get ill”. I had one cold in December 2011 and I’ve had one in September 2012. I honestly don’t recall any in between. The reason must be that I don’t work in an office any more. When I did, I was very careful about not coming in on the first day of an illness, and covering myself liberally with alcohol gel stuff before touching any handles, paperwork, etc. But not everybody was, and so while I didn’t pass all of my bugs on, I certainly caught everything going (once I famously came back from a flu bug only to catch a stomach bug, immediately). Add to that working on a campus full of students from all over the country, and world, or, before that, commuting on the Tube, and there you have it. Now I live in my little home office bubble, and there’s only M to catch things from …

Don’t work through it

When I was employed, if I felt unwell, I’d take the first day of illness off, stay in bed, and would recover much more quickly from the same bug than people who dragged themselves in. Last Christmas, I didn’t do that. I had a fair bit of work on, but I’m sure I could have shuffled it around. But I didn’t, and I was ill for longer than M, who had the same thing but was on holiday from work so not dragging himself anywhere. This time around, I took the first bad day pretty well off, just covering a small bit of work that needed doing urgently. M has dragged himself in with the same bug – and I’m getting over it more quickly.

Do work through it

Well, sometimes there are deadlines that have to be met. But I followed these rules this time, and aim to again:

  • Just do what has to be done. No extras. No blog posts. No spreadsheets, just the work that must be done, then stop
  • Do it at the best time for me – after a decent lunch with some lucozade and painkillers in my case
  • Be kind to myself: it will take longer to do than normal, and that’s fine

This way, I’ve got what needs to be done, done, but have got enough rest, too.

Have back-up

This luckily hasn’t applied this time, but back in the summer I had a somewhat spectacular reaction to an immunisation. Luckily for my clients, I had heroic Linda all set up – literally as a  named back-up for some regulars, but available to have one-off work passed to her, too. There was no way I could work that day, so I let the regulars know to send work to her, and batted any enquiries over to her, too. No loss of professionalism there!

I hope this has helped clear up this mystery. If you’re a self-employed person, how do you cope when you’re ill?

Book reviews – The Tortoise and the Hare, Life in a Postcard, Easter Island


The combination of a couple of quieter work weeks and a spell of mild poorliness has increased my reading hugely for this month! So here are three more of the books I’ve enjoyed in September.

Elizabeth Jenkins – “The Tortoise and the Hare”

(21 January 2012 – from Ali for my birthday)

This is a gorgeous Virago hardback edition (you can see it on the photo, second from the left on the front row. SO pretty. Imogen is married to Eveylyn Gresham, a barrister a good few years older than her who is Not Particularly Nice, but exerts a traditional patriarchal and also sexual hold over her. She keeps up her end of the marital bargain by being decorative (which she was obviously raised to be) and trying to run the house and family smoothly (not so successfully), buoyed up only by her flirtatious relationship with old friend, Paul, and her sustaining friendship with Cecil (who is a lady with a man’s name, contrasting nicely with Evelyn’s bi-gendered name). Enter Blanche Silcox, bluff and gruff in her ill-fitting tweeds, and elderly at 50, who is, it seems, determined to prise Evelyn away from Imogen. The women thus far mentioned are contrasted with a terrifying poetess who operates entirely through her physicality, a brittle wife and a neglectful mother: no one comes out of this particularly well.

The psychological suspense is almost unbearable – you want to probe the situation like you would a slightly sore tooth or a mild bruise. Redemption comes through the most unlikely of sources, and only once you’ve been put through the wringer. It is rather Elizabeth Taylorian (even being set near Reading) and, to put it mildly, exquisite.

Rosemary Bailey – “Life in a Postcard”

(26 January 2012 – Oxfam, Stratford)

The first of my immense haul of second hand books acquired on a lovely day in Stratford with a dear friend from America, who knew all the tempting bookshops better than I did!

Yet another British expatriate book, this time all about developing an abandoned monastery in the French Pyrenees, near enough to Perpignan and Montpellier to be familiar territory of sorts. As a writer by trade, Bailey is able to express her feelings and describe the surrounding landscape and village life beautifully, and she does, but she doesn’t shy away from the details of everyday life, the pull of England for her partner, Miles, the way their son, Theo, becomes maybe too integrated into village life, and their wrangles with local farmers. Celebratory of the huge variety of French resident and expats in the area, and a very good example of its genre.

Jennifer Venderbes – “Easter Island”

(26 January 2012 – Oxfam, Stratford)

A really good, multiply stranded narrative with a time shift element set predominantly on Easter Island. Lots of technical detail, but not so much as to become unbearable, I found. The sections set in 1912-15 read a bit like A.S. Byatt’s “The Children’s Book” and the inclusion of Alice, the heroine’s mentally handicapped sister, was carefully and well done. I disagree with other reviewers who didn’t like the “romance” or the ending – I actually found little romance in there, and many more complex and troubling relationships, and the ending was fine: you do expect some links or parallels in multi-time narratives and those that were there were not too clunky or obvious. An intelligent, and one could even say feminist, novel, with good, strong unusual women characters and an unusual setting.