How to Make a Pine Cone Christmas Tree

& other stories.
Welcome (back) to my blog! I put out new posts every Wednesday.

I thought I would lighten the mood a little with some crafts this week. I’m one of those very impatient people who loves to do crafts but doesn’t much fancy anything too taxing or time-consuming; not unless it’s something I intend to take up as a hobby.

If you’re like me and like to have a quick fix when it comes to popular new crafts, then you’ll like this one: a Christmas tree made out of a pine cone.

But first

I told you I’d showcase my Mookychick poem to you, didn’t I?

Click here to read my poem, ‘Weight’, on the Mookychick website!


Well here it is! I’m very proud to see it on the front page. I hope you enjoy my poem and, if you click my author profile, that you enjoy my photo too. I could’ve just used a photo of my face, but I thought ‘Nah – let’s use the one with the squirrel’.

But back to pine cone Christmas trees!

You must have seen these going around Facebook and the like. I’m sure people have been making these for years and years, but crafts go in fads and currently this one seems quite popular.

Not only do they look extremely cute and adorable and Christmassy, but they looked pretty easy to do – so I gave it a go.

And, like most things that look easy, this was actually a little more fiddly and time-consuming than I bargained for. If you want to make an impressive, intricate, painstakingly painted and detailed piece of art then you’ll need a good magnifying glass, tweezers, and a lot of time to dedicate to the ~ finesse ~ that you’ll ultimately want to achieve.

Or, you could be like me and just chuck something together, see what works, and have fun with it.

You can make these absolutely any way you want and with whatever decorations you want – that’s the cool part. You can make several of these and no two should look the same. You could make mini pine cone trees for all occasions!

Tools I used

Superglue
Hot glue gun
1 x fabulous pine cone (try to find a tree shape – mine was a bit narrow)
Florist wire
Oasis
Crepe paper
Red meshy fabric stuff
Li’l baubles (I snipped them off a length of Christmas tree beads)
An angel for the top (a Christmas tree decoration cut in half)
Scissors

Method

First I washed any residue off my pine cone and dried it thoroughly. You might want to do this a day or two before you start crafting, because I think this has an effect on how well the glue sticks to it.

(If you are painting your pine cone, do this first before putting it on the base for obvious reasons!)

Next I got started on my base. I cut a small thick square of oasis and wrapped this with red crepe paper. I glued it down with superglue (this will stick more to you than anything else – beware!) in a parcel-fashion. After that I wrapped around my red mesh, which looked to me like a nice rustic touch to give it a bit of warmth, and glued that down too.

Now you have a base, you need to wire your cone. I used florist’s wire, but I would recommend a thicker piece of wire (maybe jewelry wire or copper wire), because mine bent and was too soft. I wired my cone by weaving or wrapping it around the spines at the base and forming four hooks of bent wire. I used these to stab into the base and keep the cone sturdy. The flexibility of the wire came in handy here because it allows you to make adjustments.

In the future, I would likely buy some mini plant pots to make a sturdier bed for the oasis, but this method works just fine.

You may find it hard to get the wire through your crepe paper or fabric, so think about that when you choose your materials. I personally just stabbed and prayed.
I wrapped some crepe paper around the base to hide the join, and hey-presto.

Now you have a cute base with your pine cone on top! It’s time to decorate.

I first began the dull and arduous process of superglueing each tiny bead onto each spine of my pine cone. Not only did I have to hold it firmly in place for ages, but the things were sticking to my fingers more than anything else.

I switched to my hot glue gun and oh baby, all that changed! The cooling of the glue once applied happens so quickly that you can start dotting on your beads here, there, and everywhere, and they’ll be set in 10 seconds. I very much recommend using a glue gun for speed and ease of use.

I turned my cone upside down to apply these, but ideally you would probably balance them on the tip of each spine. I could not be bothered with this – I’m all about the instant fun with these projects.

At this point you will realise how stringy the glue from a glue-gun can be, and it’ll look like you have cobwebs all over your tree. Never fear, for these come off easily – and if you were making a Halloween pine cone tree, these stringy bits could actually look really awesome.

Lastly, I cut a decorative angel in half and glued them to the top.

There we have it! A very simplistic pine cone Christmas tree. I think even the simplest designs look very sweet indeed and would make a great crafting project with your kids – just be very careful with the glue gun, because these get very hot.

With lots of time, effort, and imagination, you could make some incredible looking decorations out of pine cone Christmas trees.

I hope you enjoyed that.

If you’d like to see more of my crafting attempts or book recommendations or musings on health-related topics, then please subscribe. I put out new content every Wednesday.

Best wishes,
Ashleigh

What Happens When You Have an Abnormal Smear Result

Welcome (or welcome back!) to my blog. I put up new posts every Wednesday.

Something happened recently which shook me up a little bit, and I thought it would be helpful if I passed on some of my own learning from the experience. You never know who you might be helping by sharing your thoughts, so here goes.

No sooner than I had shared on Facebook about the importance of attending your smear tests did I find my result in the mail.

It was a scary, abnormal result.

Even though I somehow *knew* I would get a bad result this time, it still hurt to have it confirmed right there in front of me, in black and white.

My letter – which repeatedly assured me this was not a diagnosis of cancer – told me I had borderline low-grade dyskaryosis (abnormal changes in the cells of my cervix) and the HPV virus, which can often contribute to these cells lingering.

You can learn more about the cell-grading system here, and about HPV here.

These cells may or may not be pre-cancerous, and over time – if left untreated – may grow into cancer cells over a roughly 10 year period.

Low-grade cells with HPV, however, can usually go away on their own.

The letter said an appointment for a Colposcopy, which is a more in-depth look at the cervix, would be forthcoming.

How I reacted

I’m ashamed to say that I instantly felt terror erupting through my body and I went off and cried about it. The fact is that while I know how I would reassure somebody else with the same letter (and even though I knew low-grade/borderline meant the lowest risk cell changes), I still could not reassure myself.

This is because I have had an enormous lot of grief concerning my health in the last 2 years – some of which I’m willing to talk about, and some I’m not ready to. I plan to blog about these subjects in the future in the hope that somebody else can benefit from my experience. When you’ve already had an enormous amount of medical intervention, countless hospital stays, operations, and appointments resulting in nothing but bad news, you massively appreciate your freedom when you have it. You realise more than most just how much you have to lose.
I associated this letter about minor cell changes with those enormous fears, so naturally came the tears and the worry.

How I dealt with it

Firstly, I shared my disappointment and upset with those closest to me – I told my mum (who I blubbed to), my dad and brother, my boyfriend (who immediately became head researcher at Ashleigh Condon Towers and set about reassuring me), and my co-workers. A problem shared = less of a burden on you.

Secondly, I called the appointments line – my appointment was 26 November, which was over a month away at the time – and asked to go on their cancellations list.
This made me feel like I was being proactive and facing the problem head-on. There was no way I was going to wait a month, worrying myself sick, if I could help it.

By the following Monday, I received a call to say that an appointment had been cancelled, and could I come in at 2 O’clock? Yes, I could – and I brought my mum with me.

What happened at the appointment

I attended the Nightingale Women’s Clinic at Southend University Hospital.

I’ve been here a few times before for various reasons, and I’ve always felt well looked after. This time, I really needed that – and they did not disappoint.

Two extremely loving, down-to-earth, calming, reassuring, intelligent and professional female nurses explained what was going to happen and that they would gently take me through every step of the process as it occurred.

One of them said she’d even had the exact came procedure – and had the exact same low-grade cell changes and HPV virus – and I felt instantly more at ease.

I was asked to strip my bottom-half of any clothing (obviously) and sit in a wonky chair with my legs up in the stirrups. This is always great fun.

Next went in the speculum – again, always a hoot.

Then a camera on a robotic arm was placed in front of my opening – not inside it, or anywhere close to it actually – just between my legs.

The nurse offered to show me the wonders of my insides, but I declined – I’m usually fascinated by this stuff, but for some reason I just didn’t want to see my cervix. At this point, I was still too afraid of seeing something scary, such as a cancerous mass, however unlikely it was. In the end, I did end up seeing it anyway – it looked like a big pink blob with lots of pixels over it, as if someone was shopping it in Microsoft Paint (I’ll explain).

The nurse doing the procedure used a long instrument to swab my cervix, because I’d had a bit of blood spotting (typical) that day, and it was obscuring the view. I’ve described this feeling as someone tickling your guts with a feather – it’s very weird and slightly uncomfortable, but not painful.

After that, she explained that she was going to douse my cervix with a solution which would highlight areas of my cervix in red and green pixels on the monitor. She said this would sting slightly and have a vinegary smell. As well as her well-trained eyes, the camera would be looking for any abnormalities – double protection there.

The solution did indeed smell like vinegar and felt a bit strange, but no worse than a smear test or swab – we’re talking a quick splash here. Then we waited a moment while it developed (your cervix is essentially a Polaroid at this point).

As the solution got to work, it did indeed pick up pixels in red and green – and there were just a couple that were white. These were the cells with borderline changes.

The nurse told me she was very happy with that, and that they were agreeing with the result of the smear. These looked like low-grade, borderline cells which would hopefully go away on their own. I was so relieved.

However, she told me they usually still liked to take a biopsy just in case.

Gulp.

Of course, I agreed to it – but if I hadn’t been too uncomfortable before, I certainly was now. The nurse produced a long, scary Victorian-looking instrument with a clipper on the end – however, she didn’t look bothered and so I tried not to let it bother me either. I held the second nurse’s hand while she chatted to me about what I was going to have for lunch (key distraction techniques at play here!) and assured me I was going to be absolutely fine.

And I was.

The nurse with the instrument took the tiniest biopsy in about 0.2 seconds and I barely even felt its presence there, let alone any pain. It was no worse than your standard smear test and it didn’t hurt a bit. I promise you, if that wasn’t the case, I would be honest about it here – there was zero pain.

They told me I’d get my results in about 3 weeks, but they expected it to be a clear result. I left feeling warm, reassured, well looked-after, and confident that I had received amazing care.

Did you know that not all hospitals offer these in-depth checks on low-grade borderline changes to the cervix? I now feel very lucky indeed. I’ve been given the gold standard of treatment.

Before leaving, I promised them I would tell my family and friends about the experience and assure them that a Colposcopy and a cervical biopsy are nothing to be afraid of.

The key thing I took away was that these are preventative measures. If you keep up to date with your smears and take your health checks and examinations seriously, then you should never ever find yourself suddenly diagnosed with cervical cancer.

They will have found any problems well in advance, way before they could develop into something nasty – and they can deal with them. A brief check online will show you that removal of pre-cancerous cells usually results in a 100% cure of them – as in the cells are gone and, therefore, the risk of any cancer is gone. If cells return, they can remove them again.

Before leaving, I asked the nurses if – theoretically – someone already had cancer on their cervix, and they went for a routine smear test, would that test show up cervical cancer?

They said yes, it should.

This means that if you get a “scary letter” about abnormal cells, then remember: that is all they are. Abnormal cells, not a death sentence and definitely not cancer. You absolutely have control of this and you can ensure your health stays tip-top by attending the recommended appointment and having any treatment if necessary.

Whatever happens, you have got this, you’ve taken control of it, and you will be looked after by the professionals.

Aftercare

The advice for me was to not have sex for a day or so and to use condoms if you do. If you needed cell removal treatment, then obviously your cervix needs to heal, so follow the advice they give you.

I was told to expect a bit of tail-end period-style blood (which I have had) and maybe some gentle cramping (which I’ve not had).

Ultimately, what I do have is a feeling of control and relief that I could face this head on, and that I didn’t get any nasty surprises. I am beyond grateful to the staff for making an uncomfortable procedure so bearable – and honestly, it wasn’t even that bad at all.

If you need to attend a Colposcopy and if you need to have a biopsy, you have absolutely got this. Don’t run away from your smear tests or your follow-ups – you can do it. You will feel like a boss afterwards, I promise.

So there you have it. All’s well that ends well. I hope you found that useful and, if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask me.

If you enjoyed my content, please subscribe – I put up a new post every Wednesday! I write about creative pursuits and life in general.

My Poem, ‘Weight’, to appear at MookyChick.co.uk

I have some exciting news!

My poem, ‘Weight’, was reviewed by poetry editor Julliet van der Molen over at Mookychick, my favourite online magazine. She really liked it and has kindly decided to feature me on their website among people who are much, much more accomplished than me. I’ve been a fan for years and I’m proud to be a part of their poetry collection.

‘Weight’ will go live on 11 November 2019.

Mookychick have come along in leaps and bounds over the years, and now have a solidly arty-fem-witch identity carved for themselves and all their contributors. Certainly, their poetry and fiction segments have been must-reads for me for a while now; they upped their game and have showcased many awesome artists and writers. I’ve come to rely on them when I need to read something niche and magical.

If you haven’t heard of Mookychick before, then have a read of the following description taken from the website itself and tell me you don’t love it:

Mookychick is a passion project done for the love, not the money. And that passion has kept us strong since Mookychick’s inception in 2005. This alternative feminist site and community has been far, far more than the sum of its parts – thanks to over 600 contributors who have made it what it is today.

Our patron saints are Kate Bush, Frida Kahlo, Marie Laveau, Ada Lovelace, Ursula K. Le Guin, Gina Torres, Helena Bonham Carter, Jeanne d’Arc, Marie Curie, Leonora Carrington, Doctor Who and St. Hildegard of Bingen. Mookychick is like water – babbling, tranquil, charged, unquiet, delicate, ferocious, restorative and deep. Its spirit is both flowers and owls. We are a watering hole where all come to drink, with a focus on meaningful empowerment and sex, body and mind positivity in every aspect of alternative culture.

So yes, I’m very proud and I can’t wait to share that poem with you all.

As it happens, I’ve only just started dipping my toes into the world of poetry, so this is a big deal for me to have a poem recognised like this. It is especially cool for me because having regularly read the poems on Mookychick, I can see how varied and talented the artists are; many of them have been published far and wide and have enviable careers in the arts.

Do you read or write poetry? Let me know – I’d love some good recommendations.

As it happens, I do have some favourite poems. It won’t surprise you at all from my gothic tastes to know that I am a fan of Sylvia Plath. My brother bought me a copy of The Bell Jar for Christmas one year, and I bought a collection of her poems sometime later. I defy anyone to not think Sylvia was a young, melancholy genius, who I (frankly) think was held back by her envious man, fellow poet Ted Hughes. Actually, everybody thinks that – watch any adaptation of her life or read any article and you will ascertain as much.

I recall that we studied one of her poems, ‘Mirror‘, in school. It’s one I’ve always remembered and found quite haunting, so I’d like to share it with you now.

Mirror
by Sylvia Plath

I hope you enjoyed that and that it gave you some things to ~ ponder ~ on.

Really, I’m very much looking forward to sharing my poem with you all.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this post, then please subscribe to my blog – I put up new posts every Wednesday.

Until next time!

Best wishes,
Ashleigh



How to celebrate Halloween: at work

Welcome to my blog! I put up a new post every Wednesday.

Halloween falls on a Thursday this year, which doesn’t bode well for party-goers with a full-time job. I’ve heard that in London, Thursday is in fact the new Friday – so going out-out on a Thursday probably isn’t something you’re unfamiliar with if you work in the best city in the world, or if you’re used to going into work on a hangover.

I’ve been to a few Halloween parties myself, many moons ago – and I don’t particularly recall if they fell on October 31. I’d love to go out-out in full garb this year, but as a proud introvert and lazy person (and having no current desire to get blind drunk, which tends to only happen when I’ve got big problems I want to escape from), I haven’t made any plans. I also work full-time, so y’know, there is that old chestnut.

So this got me wondering: how could you low-key celebrate Halloween in the workplace?

The answer is: basically the same way you celebrate Christmas at work (if you do), but sPoOkY.

Some might say that going to work in and of itself is a terrifying thing on a daily basis, let alone on Halloween. Not me, though: as it happens, I love my job.

Below, I’ve come up with some cute ways you can get into the spirit (OooOooo!) of things in the workplace. Let me know if you can think of any others. Do you usually celebrate Halloween at work? I would love to see your photos.

As an aside: Some organisations prefer not to use anything spooky-looking to avoid upsetting anyone afraid of scary or occult-looking items. This isn’t just in the case of fundamentalist religions (if ever at all): think dementia, learning disability or types of autism, for example. These themes can trigger people and be incredibly unpleasant. In this case, you could apply an Autumnal theme to all the suggestions below instead of Halloween. You could have pumpkin and leaf-shaped cookies, pecan pies, autumnal decorations – you get the picture. Just have fun!

Subtly (or not-so-subtly) decorate your desk
Do you work in an office? Great – ghosts love offices. We’ve got one upstairs with all the old boxes. If you have your own desk (as opposed to hot-desking), and if your office doesn’t have strict anti-fire rules about excessive decor (no demons allowed, in that case), then this one is for you.

You could:

  • Decorate a mini Halloween tree
  • Put out bobble-heads or spooky ornaments
  • Stick up some bats or ghouls around your monitor
  • Decorate with black, purple, green, and red tinsel

Host a Halloween bake sale for charity

There isn’t an office on this planet that doesn’t love a bake sale. These are always a huge hit, even in small offices. You try resisting a cake or cookie when it’s for a GOOD CAUSE – especially if it’s in the shape of a bat, witch, ghost, whatever. Impossible!

Simply advertise it to your staff in an everyone-email well ahead of time and, of course, ask permission first from whomever needs informing. You could ask people to bake from home or bring in Halloween-themed goodies from the supermarket. Make sure everyone is agreed on the charity of choice and that you’ve ordered the appropriate buckets/branded collection tins from that charity, or at least make them aware that you are fundraising for them.
If you work for a charity, then you could fundraise for your own cause by taking the bake sale out of house or encouraging volunteers to host bake sales on your behalf.

Eat a spooktastic lunch

So many things to eat, and so little gut-room. Here are some suggestions:

  • Pumpkin or butternut squash soup
  • Homemade stew! (you can pretend it’s a witch’s brew)
  • A spooky cookie from your local bakery (they all have them)
  • Brain sandwich (somebody must be doing it)
  • Halloween candy (Not the most nutritious choice)

If you can’t be bothered with anything else: have a spooky desktop background
It’s simple. It’s classic. It’s a nod to the season.
How 90s is this, though – actually changing your desktop background.

Remember those 3d animated shapes that could mesmerise you for hours way-back-when? Or those neon-headache-inducing scrolling bars that said ‘HAPPY 60th BIRTHDAY JEN!!!’ over and over until time stood still?

Well, now you can have one for Halloween! The constant spooky reminder will make you feel like you’re part of the event without any real effort at all.

If you work in shops or hospitality

Then great, you can access customers easier and extract their souls face-to-face instead of by email, or perhaps both. You could:

  • Wear spooky socks. Nobody will know… but you will.
  • Wear cutesy Halloween earrings or a headband (I’ve seen checkout workers do this and it always makes me smile)
  • Put Halloween music on over the speakers. Monster Mash on repeat, anyone?
  • Spend an inordinate amount of time in the Halloween aisle, if you work in a shop. Who wouldn’t?
  • Buy all the Halloween-themed baking equipment when it goes on sale. Who’s winning at life now? You are.

Cave-in and go for a cocktail after work

All right, all right – they twisted your arm. If you’re of-age and want to celebrate Halloween in style, then you may want a quiet cocktail after all.

My favourite place in my home of Southend-on-sea is an underground (literally) Absinthe bar called Dr Legba’s Emporium of Cocktails and Curiosities.
The Absinthe-green decor is beyond dreamy, and it’s usually a quiet and intimate place to sip a flaming Zombie: your own spooky little cave. Cocktails were £9 each last time I went. Even if you sip a Coke, the atmosphere, decor, and sophistication are worth being there for. It is gorgeous.
Fun fact: this place used to be a goth club called Club Krash, which me and my friends went to under-age more than a few times. It cost £1 to get in, and those stairs were a nightmare in platforms – it is a miracle I am still alive.

I hope you enjoyed that, and that it gave you some spooky or autumnal ideas for the workplace.

Please subscribe to my blog if you would like to see more! I put out new posts every Wednesday.

Best wishes,
Ashleigh

Scary Novels for Halloween

Novels to make your skin quiver

Welcome to my blog! I put out new posts every Wednesday.

This week, I thought I’d help you get into the spooky spirit of October by introducing you to some of my favourite scary novels.

I am an avid reader and always have been; I absolutely panic if I find myself at a loose end without a book. In the last year, I’ve found that I’m more partial to memoirs and autobiographies – particularly ones related to death and the medical professions – but there was a time when I was all about horror fiction.
Now, some horror – and perhaps most, actually – is purely that: horrific. Gorey, gross, revolting – you name it. And that’s great – I can recommend some absolute corkers if that’s what you’re into.

But below, I want to focus on novels that *really* scared or fascinated me – the ones that got under my skin. Some of these novels aren’t even remotely close to the typical horror fiction genre; some very definitely are. That doesn’t matter: what matters is the effect it has on you, the reader.

So to cater for all tastes, I’ve included some gore and some more psychological stories, plus some honourable bonus mentions of stories I just couldn’t leave out. I’ve also included some memoirs for non-fiction lovers.

You could say, in fact, that this is not a top 5(as stipulated below), but actually…a top 14. I’m not indecisive! You’re indecisive!

If you’re a prolific reader of genre fiction, then you’ll have heard of a few of these – if you aren’t, then I’m glad I could introduce you to something new.

As an aside, true horror lovers will find this list incredibly ‘light’, and find that it includes only mainstream releases (I’ve done this deliberately to make it accessible all-round). There is an entire indie community out there for horror writers – some of the most terrifying novels come from small presses. Check out Black Static magazine, where you can find short stories and all the new releases.
(My tastes moved on, so it’s been a long time since I read an indie horror novel)

I hope you’ll find something to suit your tastes, or at least learn a little something about mine.

My top 5 novels for Halloween

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
A must-read for rockers and goths. An ageing rockstar, Jude, collects morbid memorabilia and curiosities. He finds himself in possession of a heart-shaped box, and within this box is a dead man’s suit. Despite being warned that he was buying himself a ghost on Ebay, curiosity gets the better of him – and soon, terrible things start to happen. The suit is hexed, releasing a malevolent ghost. Jude and his girlfriend Georgia need to delve into the afterlife to free themselves from the torment. This debut novel from Joe Hill thrilled me beyond words when I read it years ago, and I still hold it close to me (in my heart-shaped box). I have actually met Joe Hill twice, and I have all my books signed with his signature doodles – he even drew me a birthday cake for my birthday!

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
A foreboding, crumbling mansion at the turn of the century, when aristocracy is fading into the past – when the filthy-rich upperclasses are dissolving before our eyes like spirits. Told from the perspective of an ambitious young doctor, sceptical of these tales of strange happenings in the night, this is a classic ghost story in the context of a dying class system.

Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z Brite
Based on Jeffrey Dahmer and other fun-loving folks, this novel is beautifully wrought and utterly disgusting. Read about exploding abdomens and gay lovers entwined; never has horror been so erotic before or since. I didn’t know what to think of this at the time, but I’ve never forgotten some of the images Brite casts for us in a big ol’ pool of blood.

The Rats by James Herbert
An absolute classic genre novel – there’s no way you haven’t heard of this. Don’t underestimate this novel’s ability to nibble away at your fingernails and wriggle under your skin – this book made me shudder. The realism is incredible – yes, the realism of hoards of rats in London. I’ve not read the sequels yet, but I’ve been threatening to ever since I read the ending – the image has stayed with me for years.

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
One of my favourite novels. Meet Frank, a psychopathic teenager running free on a bog in Scotland. This is a fascinating gothic novel about a teen obsessed with bombs, death – and who believes he can tell the future by the fate of entrapped wasps. But he’s missing a terrible secret about himself. You will never guess the big twist.

Honourable mentions (or further reading)

Horns by Joe Hill
Not quite horror, not quite fantasy; surely you’ve seen the Daniel Radcliffe film. I personally thought the film did the novel a lot of justice, and I was a pleased fan – however, as always, the novel is so much better. A novel combining religion and fantasy, this story follows a man who has lost the love of his life to a rapist and murderer – yet one morning, he wakes up to find horns are growing from his temples. Is he the monster?

Lost Souls by Poppy Z Brite
Vampires in New Orleans and sticky Chartreuse liqueur – this is the official goth bible and every vampire nut’s wet dream. Go on a joyride around the deep south to the echoing drone of Bauhaus from the stereo with your very best friends. You will not want to come back.

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
Another Radcliffe film – you know this one. A classic ghost story, praised by many – this will genuinely make your teeth chatter, and you’ll be checking every window and corner of the room. Every black smudge on the horizon could be…The Woman in Black.

Affinity by Sarah Waters
A recently bereft woman in 1870s Victorian-era London becomes a Lady Visitor to a curious woman in Millbank Prison. Echoing corridors, ectoplasm, seances, and Victorian superstition – is this woman truly a medium? Can she channel the dead? This haunting novel will make your skin prickle (and actually, I’ve yet to read a Sarah Waters novel that didn’t).

Now for some fantastic memoirs about death (or even further reading!)

To be in-keeping with the spooky theme, you might like to read some of these fantastic memoirs about those who work in the business of death and dying. That might sound pretty harrowing, and it is – these memoirs will open your eyes to forensic pathology and anthropology on a bone-deep level, taking you from the death process, cultural experiences of death, dissection, murder, the handling of mass disasters, methods of preservation and donation of bodies to medical science, all in the context of the practitioner’s every day life.

I have read many medical memoirs by nurses, doctors and the like – but these are particularly cracking ones about death and dying. They are (believe me) as touching as they are gruesome, and as empowering as they are gut-wrenching. Prepare to be educated, moved, and enthralled.

Unnatural Causes by Richard Shepherd
Richard Shepherd weaves some of his most harrowing murder cases between the fabric of his personal and home life, as fine and precise as a needle pulling thread. He even delves into his PTSD diagnosis, where the tinkling of ice in a glass reminded him of a gruesome mass disaster, where bodies were packed in ice to prevent decomposition in the summer heat. This is an honest, well-fleshed account of life as a forensic pathologist.

All that Remains by Sue Black
How do you identify who somebody was before they died? How do you put a name to a bag of bones? Sue Black takes us through her first experiences of death (a Butcher’s shop, and her Uncle Willy), her time identifying children in Kosovo, and what drove her to this morbid line of work. You’ll be fascinated to learn how she created a new preservation facility for bodies donated to medical science, explaining what it means to be ‘Thield’. Sue will show you a new perspective on body donation, and you’ll develop a deep respect for its value. (I even considered it myself after reading, and I’m still thinking on it)

In the Midst of Life by Jennifer Worth
A nurse discusses the changing perspectives and rituals surrounding death, comparing Britain to other parts of the world. She has an interesting take on the way hospitals and resuscitation have interrupted the natural passages of life and death, almost spoiling the purity of families looking after one another in their passing. A moving and contemplative memoir; perhaps lighter on the gore than the above examples (but not completely bereft of it!)

Admissions and Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

You will never find a more honest account of what it means to hold an entire universe in your hands than these accounts from one of the world’s leading brain surgeons. Detailing his work in the poorest parts of Ukraine, near-misses, heartbreaking losses and incredible victories, the stories Marsh tells are humbly portrayed. Living by a quote such as the following, it’s easy to understand the immense delicacy of his work and the tightrope he walks with every patient: “Every surgeon carries within himself a small cemetery, where from time to time he goes to pray – a place of bitterness and regret, where he must look for an explanation for his failures.’ René Leriche, La philosophie de la chirurgie, 1951” 

I hope you enjoyed those recommendations, and that you found something to tide you over through the Halloween season. The Autumn period is a time for people to think about the death of their old lives, and the beginning of a new one; a time when we shed our old selves the way the trees let go of crisp brown leaves. I find this time of year is a time of contemplation and a chance to prepare yourself for regrowth.

It’s also a time for boots, fluffy jackets, pumpkin spice lattés – and a bloody good book.

Please subscribe to my blog if you would like to see more; I put out new posts every Wednesday.

Best wishes,
Ashleigh

How to Dye Your Clothes

Hubble bubble…

Welcome to my blog; I put out new posts every Wednesday.

Today I’m going to show you how you can dye your own clothes in an easy and cost-effective way.

There are massive benefits to the environment when you fix or dye your clothes to renew their energy. Imagine if we just transformed our clothes into something new, rather than throw them out and waste them? Vivienne Westwood says that we should “buy less” by paying more – but you can buy fewer clothes *and* save your money by rejuvenating your old ones.

This is an especially great way to make your clothes feel truly yours. Have you ever paid a bit too much for an item of clothing and realised – just a little too late – that you’re just not feeling it? Whether fashion is important to you or not, I do believe our clothes tell a story about who we are and where we are in our minds.

I’ll give you an example: Just a couple of years ago, I was known around the office for my “femme-fatale dress sense”. I kid you not. And those aren’t even my words – more than a few times, I was told I had a “1940s vibe”. It was probably more to do with my obsession with pencil skirts, platform heels, and bobby pins. I was putting out an ultra-feminine image which, at the time, made me feel powerful. It didn’t help that I worked in a huge office building at the time, full of pretty people, and I was “just an admin”. Psychologically, I probably felt I had something to prove – not just in terms of job performance or climbing the career ladder, but in my appearance too. I lived by the mantra: “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have“.

2016. Colour-coordination eluded me. A bit “extra” for the office environment, no?

As things have changed for me, different styles of dress make me feel powerful. I now feel better in my Dr Marten boots and a thick black dress. I’m competing less and feeling stronger with both feet on the ground. It’s better this way, though I don’t regret my time in skirts and heels – I still had my offbeat, slightly awkward sense of style. That’ll never die! (dye?)

With that in mind, I’ve been going back to my DIY roots. As a teenage goth in platforms and dreadlocks, I am old-hat at adapting clothes. I fondly remember sharp pins pinging all over the dining room as I sewed lace onto my umbrella, and breaking the needle as I haphazardly sewed directly over the metal struts in the canopy. Pin-studs played a big role in my youth too, as did brooches, badges and odd accoutrements.

Dyeing, however, is new to me. The following is a guide on my first go with Rit dye.

This is not a sponsored post and you are encouraged to use whatever dyes you think are best.

I bought a coat and a dress from a charity shop – the coat was in a ‘new’ condition, £5, 100% cotton, in a cream leopard print design. The label was H&M.
The dress was another charity shop find, 100% polyester, £3. Polyester is a problem, but I’ll get to that later. Cream leopard print design (again!).

The dyes cost between £7-£10 each – not too much for a hobby or a one-off!

I used Rit all-purpose dye in Dark Green for my leopard-print coat and used the “bucket method” as per their instruction on the website. I also used their colour-stay dye fixative formula.

This method worked a dream.

I used a huge black plastic bin, which I washed out beforehand as it was probably a spider’s paradise (sorry speedies). Then I followed the bucket method step-by-step, using hot water from the hose pipe, some dish soap, and some salt. I used a length of wood for stirring, as – my god – that dye gets everywhere.

I plonked the whole lot in and stirred for about 40 minutes, watching it turn from cream to a subtle dark green.
I believe these dyes are non-toxic, as the instructions say you can pour these away in the drain like normal, and you can even use these dyes in your washing machine.

It needed a lot of swimming space, because although this is a fairly thin jacket, the stiffer material does require more space to flow freely through the dye, absorbing it evenly.

I washed it out several times with warm water until it ran fairly clear. Then I soaked it in another tub of fresh warm water and the colour-stay fixative.

I rinsed that out, hung it up on a hanger, and left it to dry overnight. I was absolutely overjoyed with the results! The dye left a subtle, dried-out sort of colour, which was perfect for me because while I love bold colours, I didn’t want it to offend the eyes.
You can see the result here:

A muted dark green that doesn’t assault your eyes – I love it.

Then came the polyester dress.

The dreaded polyester

This did not go so well, for one reason which should have been obvious after reading the website: Polyester does not like dyeing.

While I was hoping to achieve a midnight navy blue, I ended up with a soft pastel shade.
Now, if that’s what you were looking for, then I guess you could call that a success – but unfortunately, I wasn’t, and I do not wear baby blue.

Even with the Rit dye for synthetics, the Polyester fabric just wasn’t going to take on that depth of colour.

Still, this was my first try with a synthetic dyes and I’m happy to share the result with you.

I used the Rit synthetics dye in Midnight Navy, and followed the recommended stove-top method. I also used salt, dish soap, and more colour-stay fixative.

This actually felt a lot trickier because, let me tell you, getting a huge pot of water to a rolling-boil on an electric “stove” was practically impossible. However, this level of heat is required to get the colour to take to the fabric, and needs to be kept consistently at that level throughout the dyeing process.

I plonked in my whole bottle of Midnight Navy with the salt and dish soap and stirred that Mother for a good 40 minutes, feeling like the fourth witch in Hocus Pocus.

Unfortunately, I could tell that it wasn’t going quite dark enough, and I soon realised I wasn’t going to get a great result. Sad times.

Still, I persevered!

Once the dress dried, I was left with a sort of baby-blue-grey. Some research taught me where I went wrong with the fabric, and I noted for the future: never buy polyester. Or at least, don’t bother trying to dye it. You can see the result here:

A grey failure. Sad times.

On a plus (sized) note, I actually tried this dress on and found I didn’t like the way it fit me! So even if it had worked out, I would have been forced to send this dress back to the charity shop, or perhaps sell it on Ebay. I was hoping it would fall in a more boxy-shape like so many of my other dresses, but it clung around the hips and wrecked the look I was going for. That’s not to say it looked bad at all, but it just wasn’t exactly what I wanted.

So I guess some things just aren’t meant to be, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a lot of fun trying. As they say, you win some, you lose some.

Overall, what do I think of Rit dyes?

For a subtle look, ease of use, and price – I’d say go for it. However, don’t expect bold results.

I hope this inspires you to give clothes-dyeing a go yourself.

Best wishes,
Ashleigh

Things to do in New Orleans

Good morning. Thank you for coming back and reading my blog; I appreciate it.

Last January, I travelled for a 5-day trip to check out New Orleans. This is a place I had been longing to go ever since I watched American Horror Story: Coven, and I’m sure many fans of that particular show felt the same way. I desperately wanted to be one of the young witches in New Orleans. When Red Dead Redemption II came out, I once again became obsessed – perhaps bewitched!? – by the mystique of that beautiful and dangerous city, so different from the rest of that state and so steeped in mythical history in spite of its young age. This is a city that feels like no other you’ll ever visit, and it should be a rite of passage for any witch, goth, or spook-enthusiast.

I fell in love with this place and I hope I’ll be going back sometime soon. To give you an idea of what I got up to, I’ve compiled a helpful list of must-dos and things to avoid, based entirely on my preferences. If you want to find out your own preferences, then there’s only one way, and that is to go there.

Things you must do in New Orleans

Learn the mantra
Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say they gonna beat them Saints? Who dat?” This is a chant you will become acquainted with whenever the New Orleans Saints are playing a big game. As it happened, they were playing when I visited, and – despite not being a lover of sports – I found myself throwing an accusing finger at the big screen and chanting with the rest of the NOLA Saints supporters. A nice guy and his step-father taught me how to chant this, and expressed that you absolutely must say “who dat”, not “who’s that”. It’s the only way.

Listen to the locals
You’ll find that everybody has a story about Hurricane Katrina and the devastation that followed, how it affected so many people there, and how it ruined businesses and entire lives. Many people moved away after the 2005 disaster, and many residents were still haunted by it. The least you can do is listen and understand when they share their pain, because plenty of people will want to tell the story.

Take the tram everywhere
You can get around New Orleans (which is actually quite a small place, not at all unlike my home town of Southend-on-Sea in England) all day long for something like $3 on a Jazzy Pass. The trams are a wonderful way to see the city, and so easy to hop on and off at your leisure – even late at night. I would also advise you to catch a cab from the airport too, and not to pay for transfers. They cost a fortune and rip you off for what is actually a fairly short journey.

Stay at 1896 O’Malley House
I loved this hotel. You’ll stay in a grand Colonial house with beautiful paintings, high ceilings, and antique furniture – including a high, four-poster bed. The owner was lovely and lives there with his two gorgeous Golden Retrievers. The manager is incredibly helpful and knowledgeable about New Orleans. The house was bedecked in Mardis Gras decorations, which really got me in the festive spirit (which is lovely post-Christmas in late January!) and the place had a haunted feel, with lights on and soft, eerie music playing, even late at night when everybody is asleep. The kitchen is open and you are welcome to coffee, soft drinks, and snacks which are available to guests for free. This place was incredibly reasonable in price – I booked my flights and stay with Lastminute.com, and I’ve got some great deals this way before. It helps that I chose to go in Winter, because I for one could not stand that Louisiana heat! Off-season is a great time to go anywhere on a budget.

Have a night out at Pat O’Brien’s Irish Piano Bar
I had a gorgeous time here on every visit. It’s a beautifully set-up piano bar which feels safe and secure, away from Bourbon Street. I was here for the big football game (where I got immediately drunk on a $9 Hurricane cocktail and ended up spending the entire night), and again on my final night for a sing-song. Here you can sit in the bar or the piano lounge, request songs, and sing along with all the merry people. Hurricanes are a gorgeous drink, and it’s their famous cocktail. Drink it all in! I highly recommend this bar. Songs I requested included Can’t Help Falling in Love by Elvis Presley and The Seven Wonders by Fleetwood Mac, which they gladly performed for me. AHS Coven fans will understand the latter!

Go to a Jazz bar for live music
This is what New Orleans is all about – their beautiful music. Louis Armstrong was from New Orleans, and you can see his statue in the Louis Armstrong park nearby one of their largest and most famous cemeteries. Pick just about any bar and you’ll be happy, though I’m told Frenchman is the place to go for authentic Jazz. I found myself in the Mahogany Lounge on a quiet night, so I went back to Pat O’Briens for more atmosphere – this was mid-week however, so don’t blame them.

Go on a plantation tour
This was a fantastic outing, going deeper inland of Louisiana on a coach. It cost about $50 each, and not only will the chatty bus driver regale you with ghost stories and Louisiana tales, but you’ll visit an actual plantation, with real or replica slave dwellings, and tour the manor. I visited Oak Alley plantation for the gorgeous archways of oak trees, and naturally because it features in Red Dead Redemption II as the inspiration for parts of the story. I spent a long time here just moving around the impressive oak trees and taking photos. It was a foreboding and yet beautiful place, as I’m sure you can imagine.

Eat everything
Indulge in a massive deep-fried seafood platter at just about any restaurant in the French Quarter and you will not be disappointed. You should also try a soft shell crab Po-Boy (shell, legs, the lot!) and the famous Cajun ‘Gumbo’ in the marketplace. Food in NOLA is very expensive, though, so take about double what you think you’ll need, and then some. I would recommend buying your Cajun spices in the marketplace too, and a Louisiana cookbook. When you run out of money, I recommend Subway. You can get by pretty easily as a vegetarian in New Orleans, but I can’t vouch for their Vegan choices.

Visit the AHS Coven mansion
Of course, you need to visit Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Women. I visited the place on the one day that it absolutely poured down with rain, but I am so glad I did. You will be amazed to see the real thing; it’s every bit as beautiful as it was on screen. You can get there by tram, and it is located in the Garden district. Be prepared to see mansions more beautiful than you could ever afford to live in, and enjoy the verdant grandeur of the garden district.

Tour the tombs
You absolutely must tour the above-ground cemeteries and learn about the marshy, swampy earth that caused the people of New Orleans to be laid to rest in these haunting dwellings. You must also learn about Marie Laveau – the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, and (I bet you didn’t know this) also a practising Catholic who went to church every Sunday – and see her final resting place. Nearby, you will see the monstrosity that is Nicholas Cage’s tomb; a huge white Toblerone-style pyramid, which he chose to be nearby the magical Marie Laveau, before he got himself banned from New Orleans (until he dies and goes back there, anyway). I forget the story in its entirety, but apparently the only thing you cannot have stripped from you in the monetary sense in New Orleans is your resting place. So while he lost Anne Rice’s home, he didn’t lose his Toblerone. It is pretty ghastly and not at all in-keeping with the tombs in St. Louis Cemetery No.1, but it’s certainly a sight to behold.

Visit the boutique shops
There are countless oddball shops in New Orleans, including witchy holes with spellbooks and voodoo dolls, Vampyric gift shops, and even a bakery for dogs, where I bought my Scottish Terrier Sputnik a “frosted” bone. He gobbled it in seconds when I returned home, thousands of miles later.

Celebrate Mardis Gras
I didn’t get to do this, because the actual carnival takes place in March I believe (or did this year), but Mardis Gras season starts in January. You’ll see purple, gold and green beads, masks, and decorations hanging from every tree and building for months before the actual carnival, and it’s a beautiful thing to see. Take a piece of this back with you and you’ll be celebrating it in your heart. This is the celebration season before Lent, so there’s no reason why you couldn’t celebrate back home. Once you see the colours, you’ll want to.

Buy gifts in the marketplace
Your last stop should totally be the marketplace for quirky New Orleans gifts. I bought mugs, a Mardis Gras mask, and some voodoo well-wishing poppets as gifts for people here. It’s situated near lots of other shops, including witchypoo and voodoo places where you can get your fortune told and palm read. I didn’t get around to this, but I’ve been kicking myself since – who goes to New Orleans and doesn’t get told something terrifying from a Voodoo Priestess? I ask you.


Things you should avoid

Bourbon Street at night
Unless you enjoy clubbing, extremely loud thumping music and those sugary slushy cocktail drinks from a slush machine, then Bourbon Street at night is probably not for you. It’s the classic place to party and get drunk which, personally, did not appeal to me (unless it’s Pat O’Brien’s). It’s incredibly loud all night long, especially at the weekend, so avoid hotels in this area if you plan on sleeping.

Street hawkers/ the homeless
This sounds harsh, but you will be stopped every 10 feet if you aren’t careful. The street hawkers lure you in easily with innocent questions and, before you know it, they’re casually asking you to hand over $40. The homeless of New Orleans are very good at this too, and in general, anyone out to make money is incredibly savvy with the old charm offensive. Whilst I don’t blame anyone for giving to charity or donating in someone’s cup, I cannot stand being hassled or scammed in any way, by anyone. If someone sidles up to you, politely move on (or be prepared for it to cost you).

Swamps tours in the winter
In summer, go for it – there will be alligators and crocodiles galore. In the winter, however, this was a bad idea – they hadn’t even hatched our their little dino eggs yet. People selling the tours will tell you that you’ll see baby alligators (and you will – our tour guide brought out his pet for us to cuddle, which was nice), but the truth is, this is totally the wrong season to go. I wish I could say the bayous and swamps were impressive (to make up for a lack of dinosaurs!), but they weren’t all that – or at least, not for the price. You won’t be going down creepy, winding swamp paths – just relatively open water. In the summer, the experience will be much better.

Tips:
– Bring loads of money. New Orleans is incredibly expensive, even just to buy food.
– Go to New Orleans for 2 – 3 days, and you can easily have seen enough to get a taste. I would suggest leaving some time to view other cities or places along your way. However, if you do want to immerse yourself for your whole trip away, I can guarantee you will love it here. If I went again, I would go as part of a longer trip, visiting several places.

I hope you enjoyed that post and got some feel for what it’s like to visit New Orleans. I certainly hope it inspires you to visit there yourself someday, or that it helps you to plan your trip. It’s a truly gorgeous part of the world and I, myself, loved it there.

Best wishes,
Ashleigh