Wednesday, 13 April 2016

The 31p Challenge

We’re a competitive lot, we writers, even if some of us work hard at hiding it. And I’ve just won something!  Dear reader of last month’s post, before you say, Yay, Sheena’s luck has changed, read on…

Some writer pals were comparing PLR payments. There was a flurry of excitement when we realised that there had been an error, meaning that additional payments were on the way. These were not life-changing amounts. It all became rather competitive in a joshing and inverted way. Someone had £3.85. Someone could better that with £1.40. Much discussion ensued. What could you even buy with £1.40?

And then my statement arrived. 31p. Yes, I was the winner. Nobody could beat 31p. And if you couldn’t buy much for £1.40, then 31p was a singularly useless amount, no good for anything but to raise a wry smile.

Or was it?

Wouldn’t it be fun, Helen Grant suggested, to see exactly what 31p could buy? Wouldn’t it be even more fun for people to buy something for 31p and to send it to me?

Thus began a couple of weeks of intriguing little parcels arriving almost every day. My postman, Ian, must have wondered what was going on.

And what can you get for 31p? (It had to be exactly 31p, and it had to be postable, so not too perishable. I mean, I wouldn’t have been quite so pleased to receive 31p worth of Stilton or cooked ham.) And it was an advantage if the thing could be…well, nice. As Helen Grant said, ‘City Prices in Crieff had quite a lot of things under 30p but it's choosing something you would want...they had a very nice nit comb but I wasn't sure that was quite the right thing.’

No nit combs came my way, but all sorts of other things did, all of them costing, or adding up to 31p. 30p would have been easier, or 25p. That last 1p/6p was what tested the mettle of writers from Cornwall to Crieff. I discovered that many of my pals are ace-bargainers, and that shopkeepers up and down the country have sportingly entered into the spirit of the challenge. Some of my gifts had been amazingly marked down in bargain bins – Newquay yielded suncscreen marked down from £9.99 to10p. Others were from charity shops. Eve Ainsworth said she loved doing it: ‘because I'm a bargain hunter by nature and trying to find something for an odd sum was even more fun.’ Eve happened into her local Oxfam shop just in time to persuade the assistant to mark a very pretty glass at 31p. He then marked some others at 31p ‘just for fun’.

Fiona Dunbar bent the rules slightly by overpaying (by 14p) for something else in order to secure a lovely little bracelet for the magic 31p.

Emma Pass found a candle for 25p but then had to engage help: ‘The people in the DIY store thought it was lovely and were very keen to help me find that 6p bolt.'

what 6p buys in a DIY store! 
Keren David, whose gift of ribbon was cut to exactly 31p’s worth, was enthusiastic about the quest, which she likened to an Apprentice-style challenge: ‘It was a very interesting project. It involved thinking laterally, using powers of persuasion, creative accountancy, and there was an element of competition. It meant I went into a shop which runs courses in knitting and crocheting, and now I'm thinking of doing a crochet course to emulate your blanket-making skills. It also made me think a lot about how much things cost!’

31p worth of ribbon

Helen Grant, mastermind behind the idea, describes her adventure: ‘I'd thought it would be easy peasy to find something for 31p. It was a shock to find that most shops have nothing under a pound! In the end it was the little independent local shops who came up with the things I bought. I got the little notebook in City Prices, the Aladdin's Cave of Crieff. That was 30p so I had to get something else for 1p. I soon discovered that 1p chews no longer exist! Having tried three other sweetshops in the town, I went to Gordon and Durward, which is a very traditional style of shop that still sells sweets by weight. The girl in the shop counted out four sherbert pips with some amusement! She put them in a little cellophane bag with the Gordon and Durward sticker on it. And she gave me a receipt for 1p.’

This is what Helen Grant chose instead of a nit comb.

Liz Kessler, who sent me a gorgeous Cornish shell, says, ‘What made it so lovely and unique was that it turned what could've been a very depressing moment into something that made so many people smile. Not just all of us but also it seems like many of the people in the shops got into the spirit of it and enjoyed helping us in our quest!’
Cornish shell making friends with some Irish ones

Lisa Glass, she of the 10p sunscreen, ‘visited ten charity shops (all rubbish. Nothing under 50p) but went to another shop and found three things for 10p each. It was a lovely afternoon.’

Fun… lovely…smile… It’s all been deliciously feel-good. Especially for me.

So is this the point in the blog where I try to make it all about books, just like the priest who has to bring it all back to God in the end? Well, in a way it was. It was exactly the kind of thing children did in 1950s stories, using their ingenuity, imagination and tenacity to make their own fun. Keren pointed out that it was rather like The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright, where the Melendy family pool their pocket money to fund a series of Saturday treats.

And it was all about friendship and writerly solidarity too. And turning something negative into a positive.

And those mysterious little parcels continue to arrive by every post…


Stroppy Author said...

What fun! I got rather more than 31p, so no one will be sending me presents, but I think you've had more fun from it :-)

Sue Purkiss said...

How nice!

Lari Don said...

What a fabulous story of support and ingenuity and general human wonderfulness.

Sue Bursztynski said...

What a delightful idea! We don't usually get that kind of PLR/ELR here because you are paid by how many copies of your book the library has rather than how ten it was borrowed. And you have to have a minimum 50 copies in libraries. Royalties, maybe. Such a nice way to turn a negative into a positive!

Penny Dolan said...

Really enjoyed all the fun of this post - and so lovely to hear the stories of all the inventive solutions. Never thought 31p could be such a valuable amount, in more ways than one.

Adrianne said...

What fun! Wish I'd seen this sooner. :-)

Joan Lennon said...


Clementine B said...

Hahaha, this is such an adorable and funny post.

Julie Sykes said...

Such fun and a great way to get nice post instead of the usual boring mail shots.

Katherine Roberts said...

This is brilliant, Sheena! And so many inventive 31p purchases... are you still accepting them?

Sheena Wilkinson said...

It was indeed fun, as everyone says! I think I have had my last 31p parcel, but it sounds like some other groups of people are thinking of doing the challenge, which is lovely. It's great fun -- easy for me to say of course, as all I had to do was receive!