Wednesday, 26 November 2014


My son has been rehearsing hard for weeks to perform as part of the Shakespeare schools festival. Simultaneously over last week there were 1,000 schools performing and we watched just 4 of these in one evening. Each school had their own take on a different Shakespeare play and they were brilliant!

The lady sitting next to me watched the whole week's worth at the Curve in Leicester, and had been very impressed. As she pointed out, "Shakespeare is like speaking another language." Yet there were primary school children confidently delivering their lines for The Tempest, and conveying the meaning well enough for those unfamiliar with the play to be able to follow. My youngest daughter was so confused -"I can't understand what they are saying", but she still picked up the storylines conveyed by the acting.

One of the schools performing was an international school, so for them it was like speaking a different language, in a foreign language. They did spectacularly and even though none of their parents were in the audience it seemed like they received the loudest applause. These were young teenagers, and you could see they were glowing with the appreciation.

Did I mention they were Russian? It clearly made not the slightest difference to any one of the people in that theatre, other than to impress them at their language ability. Why should it? We are not in another Cold War, even though those words have been rattling around the news recently. It feels like there is an attempt to re-ignite old memories and old fears. But that adversary, the Soviet Union, no longer exists. Does anyone really feel under threat from Russia?

Let me tell you a little more about the play that they performed. It was Othello, and a very brief synopsis is that Iago tricked Othello into believing that the woman he loved, Desdemona, had been having an affair with Cassio. Iago did this by deception and lies, making innocent conversations appear to mean something else, planting false evidence and trying to silence anyone who could reveal the truth. Orthello believed the lies and tormented by jealousy, murdered Desdemona, the woman he loved. In case you haven't is a tragedy. Though not quite as tragic as King Lear, which seemed as if most of the cast ended up dead!

This plot may be written over 400 hundred years ago, but the same lies, deception and false meanings are still in use to blind and mis-direct us. For instance, why are protesters in Hong Kong called "pro-democracy protesters" in the press, yet in Ukraine the people standing against the current government are called "pro-Russian separatists". (It is such a mouthful that it could easily be shortened from "pro-Russian separatists" to just "Russians".) Were the Scottish Yes supporters labelled "pro-Scandinavian separatists"? How ridiculous does that sound? Yet they were voting to be independent of British rule, just as the people of Donetsk have voted to be independent of Ukraine. The difference of course being that Scottish independence was out-voted, whereas Donetsk had a clear majority for independence. Plus the Scottish vote is considered legitimate and for some reason the Donetsk vote isn't. What is Democracy if it isn't about giving the people a vote and a voice?

If the majority of people living in Donetsk don't want to be part of Ukraine, how would you try to change their minds? Attacking them until they abandon their homes and become refugees can't be the only option.

I am not saying that I can unscramble the truth from the lies, but I do like to hear the story from all sides. This BBC interview by John Simpson of Dmitry Peskov, Putin's chief spokesperson, seems to give a glimpse of the other side of the story. I found Dmitry Peskov quite compelling. He really can't believe that John Simpson thinks that there are Russian troops in Ukraine. (Here is another interesting snippet from John Simpson from the same event)

There does seem to be a lot of accusations flying with little solid definitive evidence to back it up. Dmitry Orlov wrote in his post 'How can you tell whether Russia has invaded Ukraine?' describing what a Russian invasion would actually look like.

"....the Russians operate in battalions of 400 men and dozens of armored vehicles, followed by convoys of support vehicles (tanker trucks, communications, field kitchens, field hospitals and so on). The flow of vehicles in and out is non-stop, plainly visible on air reconnaissance and satellite photos....."

That clearly isn't happening, but at the same time how can Russia stay neutral about what is happening on their border? With most countries in the region reliant on Russian gas to see them through the winter, the picture of an isolated Russia backed into a corner doesn't ring true either. It may be the reality of energy supplies that brings the situation to a head - a cold Cold War you might say ;-)

And maybe in true Shakespearian fashion the truth will be unveiled as the tragedy ends.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Low Energy Event

I have been baking today, lots of lovely cakes for the Transition Energy Event tomorrow. Below are my delicious cookies and Nigella's famous clementine cake from the 'Green & Blacks Chocolate Recipes' book. It hadn't occurred to me before, but the clementine cake is gluten free, so must be totally healthy despite being coated in Green & Blacks chocolate ;-) I have also made a carrot cake and Mrs Thrifts Chocolate Courgette Traybake, although I was low on some ingredients by then so there was a bit of substitution involved.

If you are near Loughborough and don't have any plans for Saturday afternoon, why don't you drop in to the Transition Loughborough Energy Event at St Peters Community Centre. There will be free homemade cakes and refreshments! If that isn't enough to entice you, there will be advice on how to save energy without spending money, and also examples of some low cost solutions. With talks from Dr Tina Holt the super-insulated refurbishment guru, and Caroline Harmon local expert on energy efficiency measures and grants there is bound to be something of interest for everyone. This informal event is open from 1 - 4pm, so if there is anything you want to ask about energy bills, draught-proofing, grants, solar panels or insulation then come along for a chat and some cake :-)

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Learning about veg

A couple of weeks back my friend Marie, a teacher at the local primary school, asked me if I would come in and be "Gardener Judy". She teaches the 4 year olds, an age where they have lots of untamed energy and curiosity. 

I really surprised myself with how much veg I had grown that I could bring in and show, so I hosed down my wheelbarrow and filled it up.

The kids played pass the pumpkins, unwrapped a corn on the cob, smelled mint and tasted rocket (yuk!), pumpkin seeds and apple chips (yum!). There was awe at the big leeks, with the squiggly white roots at the bottom. Hopefully this will help the kids remember it is a leek.

They got to hold beetroot and parsnips, and saw the tiny seeds that they had grown from. And I left them with a bag of autumn onion sets so they could all go out and plant one in the school's raised beds.

I am grateful that the school let me use some of the photos, though not with any faces in. The kids were really attentive and it was great fun. Hopefully it will be a regular event from now on.

This is my first year with an allotment and what a big learning curve that has been! It isn't just about adapting to having more space and sowing a few seeds, but preparing for every pest and disease possible. This year I wasn't prepared, because in my sheltered garden at home I had never experienced blight, white fly, rust and countless others. Next year I will be planting hardened seedlings behind a fortress of protective netting.

I need to do a lot more planning too, so that I am ready to plant at the right time. Taking on the allotment in March meant I was diving straight in, whereas this year I want to make sure I am better prepared for spring.

The learning doesn't just stop with the plants. When you harvest them and bring them home, you have to know what to do with them so they don't get wasted. This may mean cooking for dinner or preparing for longer term storage, by freezing, de-hydrating or making jams and pickles.

At the beginning of the season I would bring home a lettuce or some stir-fry veg in a carrier bag and pop it in the fridge and half the time it wouldn't get used.

By summer I had worked out a better system. As soon as I got home I would wash the greens, spin them dry and pack them in re-sealable freezer bags. The freezer bags, although plastic and disposable, worked well because I can squeeze most of the air out and the leaves keep fresh for several days. This way people would grab a few leaves for a sandwich or stir-fry and nothing got wasted.

I have to mention my spinner at this point, because I picked it up from the car boot sale for 30p, and it is one of my best bargains. It is part of the 'Martha Stewart Collection', which means nothing to me, but it is clearly very well made and a joy to use. I can't understand why it's previous owners never used it, because everything in my house is now spun ;-)

I have a fair number of pumpkins, squash and sharks fin melon to store. I planned to put them out in the sun to harden the skins and to that aim assembled the mini greenhouse unit that I picked up in the sale. It was so much smaller than I imagined and very flimsy, that I decided it wouldn't take the weight of more than a couple of small squash. Instead my window sills have been full of squash, but now the radiators below the windows are coming on I need to move them to the garage. It will probably be cooler than 10 degrees C in there, but the house will be too warm.

The biggest pumpkin will be carved tomorrow ready for Halloween. Happy trick or treating :-)

Friday, 24 October 2014

Collapse and preparedness

Having taken care of the whole family, even the dog (?) through coughs that cling on for weeks and sap you of energy, it is now my turn. This means that I have a mountain of work backing up, the house is a mess, the garden and allotment untouched, minecraft is 'babysitting', dinner will be takeaway and.....I have had some time for reading :-)

Yesterday I read the latest post on The Archdruid Report. Don't be fooled by the light-hearted title 'A pink slip for the progress fairy', it is rather heavy, scary stuff, the kind that can make you feel depressed. If you have already read the likes of The Limits to Growth, then you are probably mentally/ emotionally prepared. Otherwise it may be a good one to skip.

To summarise, Mr Greer has studied history and proposes that all civilisations rise, then collapse slowly over the period of 100-300 years. The collapse isn't apocalyptic in the sense of a sudden catastrophic event ending everything. More that a succession of war, drought, disease, famine, flood and more war, interspersed with relatively peaceful periods, will define the downward slope, as it has for all previous civilisations.

It does look like we must be approaching the collapse stage, but Mr Greer is of the opinion that the Western civilisation started collapsing in 1914, with World War I, the Spanish flu pandemic, the Great Depression, World War II and the dissolution of the British Empire. The last 60 years in comparison have been a relatively stable period, where civilisation has been flourishing particularly well due to the exploitation of non-renewable energy resources. The second act is imminent though and could be triggered by a number of factors, such as an Ebola pandemic or financial crash.

The easy bit to predict is that our civilisation will decline, but predicting the details of how and when is impossible. So Mr Greer paints a fictional account of what the next 300 years might look like in his post, to better illustrate what he is talking about.

I have read Mr Greer's The Long Descent before, so was acquainted with his general collapse scenario, but had not read before his interpretation of the years 1914 - 1954. It sort of makes sense to me. Those years were hard times and the British Empire didn't survive in tact. I had the impression that we came through those years, but under a burden of war debt, scarred by bombing, with aging machinery and infrastructure, and it was an enormous struggle trying to build things back up again.

The BBC have a great population graphic for the UK, which shows the impact of the World Wars and Spanish flu on the population. I also find it amazing that the birth rate in 2011 is still lower than in 1911. The increase in UK population is a result of a lower death rate, meaning people are living longer. The average age of the population in 1911 was 25, whereas in 2011 it is 40. That means that half the population of the UK is 40 or over.

But if the years from 1914 to 1954 were the first stages of collapse then most people survived. It was really just a partial collapse. Things could have been a lot worse. In fact we learnt lessons about looking after each other, so the years following saw the birth of the National Health Service. Even during WWII lessons had been learnt from WWI, in that rationing was introduced quickly and changes were made to improve the prospects for the poorest during tough times. Looking after the health and basic needs of the poor are the reason we have such a low death rate now.

But here's the thing, most people weren't expecting any of it. We get on with our day-to-day lives and do the best we can. Some days are happy, some sad, but they end and the next day arrives. We aren't supposed to know what is around the corner, otherwise how do we find the courage to face it? What Mr Greer is really saying is that the death rate is going to increase somehow, because our civilisation is out of balance. It is a natural cycle of events beyond our control.

It does seem that many more people in the US are concerned about collapse and are being prepared and stockpiling. Whereas in the UK it seems we are oblivious to a possible collapse. Or maybe we see it, but are too conscious of social protocols and what other people think to act. Or else just more laid back about it - what will be, will be. Which is it do you think?

This brings me onto Wendy's recent posts on her blog Surviving the Suburbs. She has been talking about useful lists. Lists of things we should probably have at hand in order to be prepared for the worst. Now don't freak out at me, but weapons is one of the things on the list. This is normally the point where us Brits decide it is all extremist doomsday scenario stuff and switch to more polite conversation. The trouble is that almost everything else on these lists makes sense. It is handy to have a torch or headlamp in case of a blackout or even just blowing a fuse. And if you have a torch then spare batteries are helpful, especially if you don't use that torch very often. Common sense right?

And whilst I have this cough, the prospect of running out of loo roll or sugar, really doesn't appeal, because I would rather not have to shop this week if I can get away with it. Wouldn't it be nice to know that you had a small stockpile of some of the essential items stored away just in case? Last year there was a major water leak in my area around Christmas, which caused havoc for some families. It would be a good reason to keep at least a few gallons of water in the garage to tide you over. Does this seem extreme?

What about phone numbers? Do you know the numbers of your friends and family or will they all be lost if you damage your mobile? And do you keep spare cash at home, just in case you run out and need some desperately? And does your car always have at least half a tank of fuel, a blanket, first aid kit and bottle of water handy?

The thing is, you don't have to believe in a doomsday scenario, but labelling prepping as extremist and not even considering it, means that some of the practical stuff doesn't get discussed. Some people aren't prepared for even basic emergencies like the boiler breaking down, let alone a major power cut which is a real threat this winter.

It relates to the post a few weeks back about resilience. It may be frugal and efficient to only buy the items you need this week, but it is far more resilient if you have a cupboard full of tins, rice and pasta to fall back on when something unexpected happens. Even more resilient if you have some seeds and know how to make use of them.

How far do you go to be prepared?

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Energy switch

I have just started the process of switching my energy supplier again for gas and electricity. It should be a much quicker process now. Although nothing has happened for the last 2 weeks, because there is a 14 day cooling off period!

From the graph above you can see why I am switching. My current fixed price contract (annual cost shown in blue) was coming to an end and if I did nothing I would be moved onto the 'standard price' contract (in red) which would increase my bills by £251 a year (based on my actual consumption for the last year).

My current supplier is also offering a special deal. If I move to their 'Fix & Save 2' rate (in green) I will save £132 they say, but they mean I will make a saving compared to the standard rate, rather than my current rate. Actually it will still cost me £119 extra and I will be tied in for a year with a penalty for switching. Not really a saving after all then.

Although all the information I needed to work out the true cost was provided by my supplier, it would be easy to just assume that I was really going to save money and sign up. These energy companies can be tricky, although this is still an improvement. Previously you wouldn't realise the rate had increased until you had received a few higher bills.

MSE have a nifty tool The Cheap Energy Club that sends out alerts when there are cheaper energy deals that you can switch to. I have found it very easy to use. By comparing, I have switched to a deal called 'Blue' ( purple) that works out only £22 more than my existing rate, but I will get £30 cashback on top. My new deal is not the cheapest available, but it has given me a fixed rate for 2 years, with no penalty to leave it.

What are the chances that energy prices won't be rising over the next 2 years given that:
  1. There is a possibility of electricity shortages this winter, due to unplanned shutdowns on a couple of nuclear power stations and a few other unforeseen closures.
  2. Gas production in the UK is at it's lowest point, having peaked in 2000, and supplies only 50% of our gas consumption.
  3. Relations with Russia, the main gas supplier for Europe, are a touch frosty. Because we buy in a global market, any restrictions or price increases will affect wholesale prices throughout Europe, whether or not our gas is coming directly from Russia.
  4. Prices have been increasing by significantly more than inflation for the last 10 years.
  5. The current government has made no progress on tackling the huge profits that the energy companies make, though they have succeeded in significantly reducing the uptake of energy efficiency measures. Large scale take up of energy efficiency measures may lead to reduced demand, however high energy prices also reduce demand. The difference is that high prices hit the poor hardest and can lead to them being unable to afford to keep their homes warm, where as energy efficiency measures such as insulation means that keeping your home warm uses less energy and costs less.
For energy prices to remain stable over the next 2 years we would need very mild winters across Europe, an end to sanctions with Russia and no growth in demand for energy. Just looking at the last point, if the economy is growing, then energy consumption is increasing. This is because economic growth is about building more houses, expanding factory output, and increasing consumer spending on 'stuff' that is made with energy. No growth in energy consumption quite simply means no economic growth. That's not a popular suggestion (even less so than making up with Russia), hence why energy prices are almost guaranteed to rise over the next 2 years.

But wait......oil prices have been falling significantly, which signifies a drop in demand for oil. This could be one of the first indications that recession is starting to bite again (supported by the dive in share prices), so maybe no energy growth is a possibility?

Whatever happens, checking whether you can reduce your energy bills now, installing energy efficiency measures and taking advantage of subsidized or free solar panels will prepare you for the coming winter and help reduce costs.