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Greenwich: Why Sew On The Go is a celebration of making and travel

Made In Greenwich curator Mary Jane Baxter’s is the story of her journey through Europe in a van

Sew On The Go author Mary Jane Baxter
Sew On The Go author Mary Jane Baxter – image Matt Grayson

Sew On The Go is many things. Travelogue, inspiration, maker’s guide, cautionary tale, creative outlet. It’s Mary Jane Baxter’s third book and, while it’s packed with crafting projects just like The Modern Girl’s Guide To Hatmaking and Chic On A Shoestring, it embraces something else in its 250 pages – the adventure of a journey.

Six years ago, its author left her job at the BBC after 14 years working across Europe, bought and converted a small van, rented out her flat in London and set off on a trip with the aim of combining her love of travel and making things. The resulting book is the story of that expedition.

“I spent a lot of time building up to it – I did a trip for Newsnight in 2009, which involved travelling around Britain and doing make do and mend tasks in exchange for bed and breakfast with viewers,” said Mary Jane, who curates craft and art shop Made In Greenwich for the Greenwich Cooperative Development Agency.

“In order to have a comfortable night’s sleep, I would do a task, so I made trousers for a stilt-walker, created a hat for somebody to wear at Ascot and swapped a night in a hotel in Edinburgh for hats.

“It was about frugality in response to the last recession and it went down really well. At the time I had a second-hand Nissan Micra. It was quite clapped-out but I’d had the idea for this trip and thought it would be really interesting if I had this really crazy vehicle to do it in.”

Having inherited a few thousand pounds following the death of her uncle in 2014, she decided to take redundancy from the BBC and test-drove lots of “really gorgeous vans” that were all too expensive. Then, while walking through Greenwich Park she spotted a man with a curious-looking vehicle.

“He said it was a Bedford Bambi and told me I could test drive it, so I took it round the park and thought: ‘Yes, this could work’,” said Mary Jane. “I saw one for sale down in Southampton, took the train, bought it on the spot, drove it back to Deptford and started doing it up.

“At the time I was working pretty much full-time in the newsroom at the BBC and, at the time, I lived in a tiny flat, so the van gave me an extra crafting space. I felt like I was building an escape pod – I spent every day working on Bambi.”

The makeover included covering the van’s exterior with wallpaper samples (rescued from a Brighton skip) and varnishing them to protect them from the weather.

“Then Bambi was ready to go and so was Mary Jane, having put together a plan to visit and stay with various friends, mount pop-ups at markets, sell the things she’d made and, most importantly, experience the untold possibilities of the open road.

“It was: ‘Let’s throw it up in the air and see what freedom feels like after working for so long from eight in the morning until seven at night’,” she said. “Setting off on St Gerorge’s Day in April 2015 felt brilliant – it was amazing. 

“I packed everything I needed to craft on the road into Bambi – hats I’d made to sell, books I could offload to help fund the trip, haberdashery and my trusty hand-cranked sewing machine.

“I also had no electrics in Bambi – no interior lighting, no drainage, no water, no loo – it was basic camping. I did have the hob for a fry-up on the go, however. Bambi looked incredible and she got so much attention – people waved as we went off.

“I got to the ferry and it was just that feeling that there was no agenda, no commitment – nothing on the horizon that I had to do. What person in their mid-40s wouldn’t want that? To lock the front door and just go.”

Multiple adventures followed over the next four months as Mary Jane made her way through Belgium, France, Italy and up to northern Scotland. 

Readers can expect plenty of picturesque escapism as well as moments of drama including an encounter with an ageing campsite Lothario and dicing with the terrifying sheer drops while driving through the Gorge du Verdon. It’s also a tome stuffed with ideas for makers of all levels.

“The book contains 26 upcycled craft projects interwoven in the story,” said Mary Jane. 

“There’s always an element of my work that’s about re-using, recycling and creating beautiful things out of stuff people chuck away – everything from no-sew projects to more complicated ones.

“It’s also a rip-roaring travel read, which is an honest and exciting account of how it felt to be in that position of not being able to stand being at my desk anymore answering emails and deciding to bloody well go off and do something interesting instead. It’s light-hearted but it’s also about the creative process and about those life decisions that come your way – you don’t get married or have kids – things you might have expected, but don’t happen.

“What do you make of a life that’s balanced between being creative and being responsible for yourself and how do you make that work?

“The book is about trying to answer the question: ‘What are you looking for?’. I still don’t know the answer, but I’m glad I took this journey in an attempt to find out. 

“Often people have ideas but they don’t follow them through. A lot of people, especially women, don’t travel on their own – I talked to a lot of women in their 40s and 50s and they said they would never go off on their own like that.

“I have to say that, as the trip went on, it wasn’t all plain-sailing. There were real episodes of loneliness, and wondering what on earth I was doing. But I’d had the idea, bought the van and I did it.”

Published by Unbound on a crowdfunding model, the book came out in May.

Mary Jane said: “It took six years of hard work, fundraising, writing and journeying. Of all the books I’ve written, this one does hit the nail on the head. Bambi happened and I’m really pleased that I produced something out of my imagination and got it out there.” 

Sew On The Go: A Maker’s Journey is available to buy at Made In Greenwich in Creek Road or online for £16.99, published by Unbound.

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Isle Of Dogs: How east London author’s work introduces banking to children

Nithya Sridharan – writing as PecuniArt – has published her first book, titled The Magic Box

Isle Of Dogs author Nithya Sridharan – image Matt Grayson

“My grandparents were exceptionally good storytellers,” said Nithya Sridharan. “I grew up in a joint house in Bangalore, where they lived with me and my parents. Every night me and my sister would be packed off to them for a while and they would tell us stories.

“My grandmother was a mathematician and they would weave complex topics such as algebra and geometry into the stories, which were often about the village where they grew up. As city-bred girls, me and my sister were completely enchanted by them.”

The Isle Of Dogs-based writer recently published her first book – The Magic Box – a story that similarly seeks to educate as well as entertain, although drawing on Nithya’s wealth of experience working in the financial services industry in Canary Wharf, rather than maths.

“The story, which is aimed at children aged seven to 11, came from starting to think about how I could weave some key financial concepts into a fun, magical tale, which is also south Asian, because I wanted to bring that flavour into books,” she said.

“A lot of it comes from living and learning in that part of the world. The story is set in a tropical town called Lokpuram and it follows three children who are trying to solve a problem that involves money. There’s a magical character in the mix as well.

“Within the story there are a lot of concepts that are blended together, which makes it easier for kids intuitively to understand key financial ideas, such as how a bank works, what one is and how it has money.

“There’s one part of the book which I personally enjoyed writing, that is about central reserve banking. I don’t use the words, but the concept is there and it’s woven into the story.

“We start with the idea of a bank and how borrowers and lenders can come to such an institution – a place that connects them – and shows how the basic business of banking works.

“I also talk about interest rates as a fee, which you pay on top of what you borrow. If you think about the origins of banking, the idea has been around a long time, but not in the forms we see today.

“The word ‘bank’ comes from the word ‘panca’ in Italian, which means ‘bench’. It started with people sitting down and trying to put borrowers and lenders together.

“They used to have IOU notes, which later evolved into the money and currency that we know today.

“So these concepts have been around a long time and people intuitively understand them, even if they haven’t heard of the terms before.”

Writing under the name PecuniArt – a portmanteau of the Latin word for money and art – Nithya was driven to write her book to help boost people’s knowledge of the financial world. 

“I wrote the book because financial literacy is key to the world we live in – everybody uses money,” she said. “Recently there was a study which was done by the Pensions Institute, where they found that, if you look at the population of young adults, one third of them did not understand concepts like interest rates and inflation.

“I suspect lots of adults don’t understand either, even though these terms are constantly in the news.

“Research has shown children and young adults who are basically financially literate have an easier time in their lives – they’re better able to access low-cost loans, have better credit scores and less debt delinquency.

“I feel that with the world that we live in, if you know how to interact with money, what these concepts mean and what the economy is, then you’ll engage with it better, not just in terms of borrowing and lending, but also in terms of your own personal wealth and wellbeing. You’ll know what to do and what it means when the interest rates go down – you won’t get caught out by high interest payday lenders.

“The book is meant to be read as an introductory view of what a bank is, rather than as a detailed analysis of what the world is today.

“There is a section in the book – titled the concept check – where I talk about whether what happens in the story is real. I didn’t want to go into greater detail in terms of what you get from banks, or the stock market today, because I think that’s more advanced. 

“The whole point of the book is to introduce these concepts and, obviously, it’s a magical story, so it’s not intended to be taken literally.”

Nithya, who has lived on the Island for six years, said she hoped to foster a sense of inquisitiveness about the financial system in the minds of her young readers.

“I want them to understand the concepts, but also for them to be something kids are curious about,” she said.

“I’ve had some feedback from children who have read the book, and it’s interesting that some hadn’t thought about these ideas previously – they asked a lot of questions about how it all works.

“I also hope the story gives them enough information on what these concepts are, so that they can ask and engage with adults on all those questions, and find out more about them – that it makes them curious. The feedback I’ve had has been that the kids are very engaged with the magical aspects of The Magic Box.

“The very young ones are disappointed that this part isn’t real. What was very encouraging though, was that even young readers were interested in the subject after they had read the book. You might think that banking, economics and finance sound very technical and not easily accessible, but I’m pleasantly surprised people actually find them interesting – I was hoping for that outcome.

“This is definitely an area schools should be focusing more on. An element of financial literacy should be open to all.

“There are a lot of resources out there already – the Bank Of England, for example, has a financial education portal. While some schools are doing good work, I certainly believe there should be greater involvement from them in providing financial education.

“A study by the Organisation For Economic Co-operation And Development looked at financial literacy for kids across the globe in 22 countries and found that, in certain states, policy intervention was needed to increase those levels.”

While The Magic Box – available in paperback via Amazon priced at £9.99 and at selected bookshops in London – is PecuniArt’s first title, Nithya is already thinking about another book.

“For the next one I will think about how to break down a very complex concept, like the economy,” she said.

In the meantime Nithya will continue sharing posts about money and art for both adults and kids via her Instagram account – @pecuniart.

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