Wednesday, February 28, 2007


In 1967, on a week-long school trip to Ingleton, we did the Ingleton Waterfalls Walk. (This website gives you a very good idea of it). It was summer and I remember it as being beautiful, though a steep scramble and a bit scary in places. My particular favourite was Thornton Force.

From the starting point near the centre of Ingleton, you walk up the River Twiss and down the River Doe – or vice versa if you prefer. Forty years on, they have improved the path considerably. It’s four and a half miles and they class it as “strenuous” because it goes up, then down, then up - - But in general, you don’t get great scenery without a bit of up and down.

The easy thing about it is that it follows a well-made path: you would have to be trying really, really hard if you were to get lost. In the summer I expect it gets crowded, though I think it’s big enough to absorb a good number of people. On a misty Sunday morning in February, though, there weren’t many walkers and the ones we met were very friendly.

On the way, you pass about a dozen waterfalls, each of which has the “wow” factor in a different way. Of course, the winter rains had helped and all the falls were at their most spectacular. Lots of wildlife, too – John tells me when he did the walk a while ago he saw an otter with cubs.

Here’s Beezley Falls Triple Spout: (don’t waterfalls have good names?)

There’s a visitor centre and very pleasant café. The walk costs £4 each – the area is well maintained and I thought it was well worth it. I could do that walk every week for a year and never tire of it – if I lived nearer, I probably would!

I shan’t be leaving it another forty years before I return.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Life on Mars

I don’t often write to newspapers but this week I wrote to The Times, with a slightly tongue-in-cheek response to a letter. And they published it today! I am rather chuffed.

This is what I wrote:

Dear Sir

Richard Kinley points out (Letter, Feb 22) that, statistically, the most dangerous drivers are young men, and suggests raising the age limit for a driving licence to 21 to cut congestion on the roads and increase safety.

Surely the answer is to raise the age limit to 21 for men and leave it at 17 for women? This will reduce traffic congestion and raise the average standard of driving at the same time.

I decided to show my tiny bit of fame to the Communist and my mother, having previously canvassed my family as to the Communist’s response: we knew my mother’s first response would have to remain unrecorded, as she can never get a word in when the Communist is in full flight

The bets, we decided, should be placed on one of two reactions:

a) What are you doing writing to that filthy Murdoch rag The Times? You should have written to the Morning Star instead.


b) What are you doing writing about that sort of thing for? What about Blair, or Iraq?

I showed them the letter, and braced myself. The reply was unexpected:

“Oh look, that’s you. - What’s happened to Life on Mars?”


Life on Mars. Nine o’clock. It was good last week.”

(I digress slightly to say that yes, it was good last week, with one of the actors I work with, Steve Evets, excellent as the baddie Dickie Fingers)

The Communist continued: "It’s in the Radio Times. But it’s not in the paper. Why not? What’s happened to it?”

“I think it’s been replaced by Match of the Day,” I said.

Match of the Day? Instead of Life on Mars?”

“Yes, I think so. I expect they’ll show Life on Mars another time.”

My mother joined in, bringing her favourite sport with her - she loves rugby.

“Hah! Soccer! They never do that for rugby, do they? You wouldn’t get rugby replacing Life on Mars, would you?”

- - And by now we were in our usual Alan Bennett-style conversation - - ah! Sic transit gloria mundum, eh?

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Forty Years On

It was July 1967, the Summer of Love. Hippies. Flower Power.

“If you’re going to San Francisco
Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.
If you’re going to San Francisco
Summertime will be a love-in there”

I didn’t have flowers in my hair. I was wearing sensible shoes, and my new purple trews with the strap that went under my feet, and my wonderful new camera, the Instamatic 100, slung round my neck. I was on a week-long school trip to the village of Ingleton, in the Yorkshire Dales.

Here I am, ten-nearly-eleven, on the right of the photo, next to Avril Thompkinson in the skirt (she was very girly) and the tall, clever Pat Tompkins on the other side of me. Zooming in, I can see that I had yet to grow into my front teeth, that I was wearing the hated glasses: but I look happy, in that slightly daydreamy way I had then.

Mr Storey, our class teacher, made a film of the whole week’s stay, interspersed with shots of me looking vaguely round as a running gag, “Here’s Daphne looking for fairies”, “Here’s Daphne again, still looking for the fairies” - -
Of course, I was really looking for good places to take photographs – and there were plenty.

That week we went to Ingleborough Cave, Janet’s Foss near Gordale Scar, church on Sunday, (a first for me - you did things proper on school trips in those days), Malham and the Ingleton Waterfalls Walk amongst other places. On the Tuesday afternoon our parents came to join us and we spent a happy afternoon in an open-air swimming pool, whilst some people played Jolly Team Games on an adjacent field but not me, no thank you, I stayed in the pool until I turned blue.

On Wednesday we set off to climb Ingleborough, but it was so misty we had to turn back. On Friday morning we were offered the chance to either try it again, or go shopping for souvenirs – I chose Ingleborough and a few of us, led by the indomitable Mr Storey, went up it rather quickly as we were short of time.

Such a lot I remember of one short week of ten-nearly-eleven. The school had done that trip annually for years – but ours was the last, the teachers were approaching retirement and the following year the primary-school-leavers got a weekend in London instead. No contest, as far as I was concerned – I loved the Dales.

Loved the Dales, and the Lakes, and have been to both many, many times since. And loved Ingleton too, and resolved to go back as soon as possible – but somehow, never managed it.

And this weekend, very nearly forty years later, I did. Yippee!

Friday, February 23, 2007

The Bathroom Fitter from Hell

This house needed a lot of work doing when we bought it from my parents (it still does, but at least now it’s mostly decorating, rather than all new windows etc). Most of the people who worked on it were great, particularly the two entertaining middle-aged men from Wigan who formed a delightful double-act as they put in a new central heating system. They even carried up the boiler-before-last from the cellar – the previous lot had refused but these two toiled on doggedly to carry it up the long flight of stone steps – it took them half an hour.

“I think we’ll be needing a cup of tea when we get to the top, and you won’t go pushing it down again, will you, Mrs F?”

But then there was the Bathroom Fitter from Hell and he came from NORWOOD KITCHENS AND BATHROOMS. Just in case you were thinking of having any work done on your house by NORWOOD KITCHENS AND BATHROOMS please remember that this was where the Bathroom Fitter from Hell came from – or, more likely, was sub-contracted from without any checks upon his skills whatever.

The saleswoman was fine and the bathrooms were fine. But as soon as the Bathroom Fitter from Hell turned up, looking bored, dirty (in a never-got-properly-clean kind of a way, not in an honest-day’s toil way) and casual in his attitude - he came from NORWOOD KITCHENS AND BATHROOMS by the way, did I mention that? – I knew I didn’t want him in my house and that he’d do a lousy job. Some people inspire confidence – he just inspired total lack of it. But I am too polite just to look at someone and say “I know already that you’re crap. Please go away.”

The first thing he did was ask for money up front “to buy materials”. I pointed out that he should get this from NORWOOD KITCHENS AND BATHROOMS and he should take it up with them. Ah, he said, but if I gave him some cash he would give me a free light fitting.

No, I said, I don’t want a free light fitting, just do the bathroom, please. I rang NORWOOD KITCHENS AND BATHROOMS and told them to tell him to stop asking me for money. I wish I’d been a bit more forceful and told them to tell him to get lost.

We wanted to keep the old bath, because we liked it, but by the time he’d put all his tools in it and scratched the enamel off I wished we hadn’t. He put all the tiles on so that the pattern didn’t match up. He put the sink in crooked so all the piping showed. Finally he built us a cupboard of such glorious flimsiness that the manager from NORWOOD KITCHENS AND BATHROOMS, summoned by me in a “Kindly get round here and look at this NOW” way, removed it with one swipe of his hand - and with considerable embarrassment, it must be said.

It all needed taking out and putting in again really. Everything was just slightly wrong. We banned the Bathroom Fitter from Hell from our house and someone else sorted it out, kind of. I wish now that I’d refused to pay them anything at all until it was all done properly. But we’d lost heart by then and I just wanted the job done, so they bodged it so it was all nearly, but not quite, right. I have never liked it. If we can ever afford it I will get the whole thing redone.

So, NORWOOD KITCHENS AND BATHROOMS, may I just point out to you that it’s no good having a flash showroom and a good sales force if you can’t back it up with skilled people where it really matters.

I'm a Believer

I picked up a copy of Leeds Student recently whilst working in the university. I used to read it when I was a student there, years ago, and the title was very nostalgic, though the paper looks a bit different these days.

An article caught my eye. For the first time ever, the university has an Atheist Society.

Now this might, at first glance, seem surprising – there would seem to be a fair few atheists about, so why has there never been one before?

But when you think about it, an Atheist Society is a society of people whose common interest is that they don’t believe in something. So they wouldn’t necessarily have anything else in common, any more than they would if it were a Society of People who Don’t Like Cheese. (nb I wouldn’t join that one either).

The thing about atheists, of the kind who don’t believe in God so passionately that they want to form a society to practise their beliefs, is that they’re really looking for something to believe in. The language used by the society’s President, Chris Worfolk, confirms this.

“I set up the society as I have a strong belief in atheism and want to spread and promote atheist thinking.”

I put it to you, m’lud, that you can’t have a strong belief in atheism. It’s a negative thing, not a positive thing. You could believe in the strength and beauty of humanity at its best: but having a society dedicated to not believing in God suggests that you know that there is a God, but you’re just choosing not to believe in Him.

Let’s listen to a bit more of Mr.Worfold:

“We would like to set up debates with the other religious societies to better understand their position.”

Er - - did you say the other religious societies? You just don’t get it, do you? Go on, say it again, make my day! - - The article continues:

When asked if there was any opposition to the establishment of such a society within the University of Leeds, Worfolk said “I am not aware of any current opposition from the other religious societies - -“

Thank you, Chris, you did it again. Let me break it to you gently. What you are is someone who wants to believe in something. At the moment you think it’s atheism.

Real atheists aren’t interested in God, or in religion – it’s not part of their lives. Whereas, Chris, in fifteen years or so you’ll be sending your children to a church school because the discipline’s good and you like the uniform and you’ll think that there may be something in this God business after all.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Two Jokes

Here's my favourite joke:

What's tall and smells nice?
A giraffodil

Ah well, I didn't say it was the best joke ever: I just said it was my favourite. Emily brought it home from school once when she was small and I've always liked it.

But I don't remember jokes, generally: I enjoy them and forget them. You can tell them to me lots of times and I'll still enjoy them.

Here's a longer one that I have remembered, though: it's about a Computer Network Administrator and hence has a certain resonance in this household.

A Computer Network Administrator was walking along when he saw a little frog by his feet.
"Hello," said the frog.
"Hello," said the Computer Network Administrator. Not one to waste words, he picked the frog up and put it in his pocket.
"Mmmph" said the frog from the depths of his pocket. The Computer Network Administrator took the frog out and looked at it.
"If you kiss me," said the frog, "I will turn into a beautiful princess."
The Computer Network Administrator said nothing, but put the frog back in his pocket.
"Mmmph" said the frog. The Computer Network Administrator took the frog out again.
"Didn't you hear me?" said the frog. "A beautiful princess with long blonde hair and a fantastic figure. All you have to do is kiss me."
The Computer Network Administrator said nothing, but put the frog back in his pocket.
"MMMPH!" said the frog, rather crossly. The Computer Network Administrator took the frog out again.
"A beautiful PRINCESS." said the frog slowly. "With LONG BLONDE HAIR and a GREAT FIGURE. And an INSATIABLE SEXUAL APPETITE. All you have to do is KISS ME."
The Computer Network Administrator said nothing, but put the frog back in his pocket.
"MMMPH MMMPH MMMPH!" said the frog, in fury. The Computer Network Administrator took the frog out again.
"Why don't you just kiss me?" asked the frog, somewhat wearily.
"Look," said the Computer Network Administrator, "I work in Information Technology, so I don't have time for girlfriends. But a talking frog! - Hey, that's cool."

Monday, February 19, 2007

Violets on the Wall

On Saturday we visited the excellent Abbey House Museum, just across the road from Kirkstall Abbey in Leeds.

I've been there many, many times before - it was a favourite haunt when Emily was little - but they refurbished it a few years ago and it's always worth a visit.

There's a street of 1880s Leeds shops:

There are also some exhibits of typical Victorian rooms. My favourite used to be the Victorian parlour upstairs, but sadly that went with the refurbishment of a few years ago and it's now downstairs and smaller:

What I particularly liked about it before was its size: it was the size of an actual room, not just part of one, and I loved, as a child, to imagine the ladies in crinolines actually living in it.

But my favourite room now is this one:

Why? It's the wallpaper. When our family moved to the house where I live now, when I was three, my bedroom was the little one just at the top of the stairs - now our spare room for visitors - and my parents decorated it with identical yellow wallpaper with its pattern of bunches of violets. Very faded now, of course, in the museum - and in our house it's long gone and now the walls are plain white.

I loved that wallpaper - even as a very small child I loved the violets because they reminded me of the Lake District and the violets there.

It's very well-known that smells can take you back to a certain time, a place - - in fact there's a whole exhibition in the museum about smells. Wallpaper isn't, perhaps, so well-known on the nostalgia front. But in most of my years as a young child I would wake up and see that wallpaper and every time I see it now I am seven again, waking up and looking at the violets and then drawing the curtains to see the apple tree outside the window.

Sunday, February 18, 2007


It’s been a glorious, sunny day today and we all went to the River Wharfe near Bolton Abbey. The Communist can’t walk too far these days so stayed by the excellent Cavendish Pavilion café while Stephen, Emily, Gareth, my mother and I all set off to walk to the Strid.

I know I’ve mentioned the Strid before on this blog, but it never fails to thrill me. I love to watch fast-moving water both on the coast and in rivers, and there aren’t many places like the Strid. Today, after the recent rain, it was particularly spectacular.

Here’s the River Wharfe a little way upstream of the Strid. A big, wide river crossed by a big, solid Victorian bridge.

Here’s the view upstream from the bridge:

At the Strid, half a mile or so downstream of the bridge, all that volume of water turns itself sideways and squeezes through a tiny gap in the rocks which looks so narrow that you could stride across: “Strid” means “stride”.

Nobody, I should think, would have even been tempted to try it today, because the river was so high it was splashing over the surrounding rocks. But I’ve been there when the rocks have been dry: and it does look possible to jump across.

Actually, it’s a bit of an optical illusion because if you look at the Strid from the other side it looks much wider. But it’s true that a good athlete could jump it if the rocks on the other side were not slippery.

Some people, I’m sure, have jumped it and lived to tell the tale. But many more have not. Of course, if you consider all that width of water going through that gap it’s obvious that it must be really deep: it sucks you down into underground caverns.

Nobody has ever fallen in there and survived: and yet still some people insist on trying, in spite of all the warnings.

It’s a fascinating place: both beautiful and terrifying.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Purpose of God

I saw this poster today outside a church. You see! Even God doesn't know what He's supposed to be for.

"Am I supposed to just let them keep on killing each other, or am I supposed to intervene?" mused God. "And what about global warming? Should I stop it? Or do I just let it happen, since they brought it on themselves? What about bird flu? Did I start it? I really can't remember. Should I stop it? I've got far too much to do, and I'm just not sure if that falls within my remit. I'd really rather spend the time making sure there isn't another series of Little Britain, because if they do make one, it'll be shit. And no, I can't be expected to do anything about the trains, I'm sure that can't be my fault, and some things are just too damn difficult. Oh, sod it, it's Saturday night, I'm off down the pub."

Friday, February 16, 2007

My Carbon Fingerprint

“Carbon footprint” is the phrase that’s everywhere now. A year ago, I don’t think I’d heard it but now it’s a rare newspaper that doesn’t have it somewhere.

It’s often mentioned with regard to travel by plane. We all fly everywhere far too often, using up too much fuel, contributing to global warming, and we must do it less.

Hah! Well I may well be contributing to global warming in lots of ways but I don’t think plane travel is one of them.

I started young with the plane travel thing: I had my sixth birthday in Lagueglia, my seventh birthday in Sestri Levante, and my eighth birthday in Viareggio. Italy – I loved it, I couldn’t wait to return. I even did a year’s Italian at university.

But I’ve never been back. In fact that was it for the plane travel until I was twenty-nine, when I flew to Germany with Stephen for a few days.

And since then I’ve flown to Amsterdam, where my brother lives, three times, I think, but the last of those was to my brother’s wedding in 1999.

Why? It’s hard to pin down. I don’t mind planes – though I’m always worried about my right leg: it had a deep vein thrombosis once, you wouldn’t want one of them, trust me. I love the British coast and countryside. I love France, but that’s a boat trip, not a plane trip. I’d never want to go to one of those high-rise-hotel-crowded-beach places. I just don’t think of going to places that you go to by plane: and it’s generally me who books the holidays in this household.

But this week has been the half-term holiday and lots of people I know have flown off to all sorts of interesting places. In contrast, it’s been one of the busiest weeks in our office ever, and what’s more the “busy” part of it was mostly sorting out some work for people who were new to the job of booking actors and kept getting it horribly wrong and ringing to apologise and change everything. And some of the people who were supposed to be working with me got ill and couldn’t, which made it busier. And a grumbly bit of me kept pointing out to me that it was half-term, when I usually have some time off to see Emily and play out a bit: but it was just too busy.

So, busy but deeply uninteresting, and my job isn’t usually like that. I nearly had to do some work in East Anglia myself as I couldn’t find anyone to replace the person who was originally down to do it: and suddenly found I was quite looking forward to travelling to Kings Lynn. But then someone offered, so I was off the hook and back in the office - -

At the moment I’m feeling very sorry for myself and want to change my carbon fingerprint into a carbon bootprint the size of the Communist’s when he had the biggest pair of boots on the Yorkshire coalfield. A plane, please, to anywhere.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


Here's a Victorian sampler that I found today on the wall of the White House pub near Oakwood, where I was having lunch:

Samplers were embroidered by small girls to practise and show off their skills in different embroidery stitches - they usually gave the girl's name and the date too. I think that this one used to but they have worn away. You can still read the verse, though. This is what it says:

Virtue is the chiefest beauty of the mind

The noblest ornament of humankind

Virtue is our safeguard and our guiding star

That stirs up reason when our senses err

Imagine the joy little Emmeline must have felt when presented with this trite pomposity to embroider. The idea was that somehow the noble sentiment would permeate the person doing the embroidery.

Now, for those who like that kind of thing - as Miss Brodie was heard to remark - that is the kind of thing that they like. But I'm not one of them.

No wonder child mortality in Victorian times was so high: I expect they died of boredom. I live in hopes of one day coming across a sampler that reads:

This tedious sampler that I have to sew

Is my life wasted. Will I do it? No.

Most Promising Newcomer

Judi Dench or Helen Mirren? Well, I've seen both The Queen and Notes on a Scandal and enjoyed them both very much. I enjoyed The Queen much more than I expected, not having much interest in royalty: and I thoroughly recommend Notes on a Scandal. Excellent acting in both, I thought, from excellent casts and the BAFTA could have gone to either Judi or Helen: both would have been worthy winners.

Of course Judi applauded and smiled when Helen won - and actually she's always seemed to me to be a very gracious woman. But wouldn't it be great, just great, if once on one of these occasions the loser got up and yelled "It's not fair! That should have been me up there!"

Another, less famous woman received a BAFTA too: Andrea Arnold, or, to give her her full title, Former Children's TV Presenter Andrea Arnold (I'll come back to that Former Children's TV Presenter bit).

Last year she won an Oscar for her short film Wasp which is excellent - ah, the skill that goes into telling a simple story well! Watch it here.

Now Former Children's TV Presenter Andrea Arnold (I'll come back to it, yes I will) has won the Carl Foreman Award for Special Achievement by a British Director, Writer or Producer in First Feature, for her film Red Road, out on DVD next week.

So, many congratulations to her. But I've seen a few newspaper articles about her now and the tone is always one of slight incredulity.

"Former Children's TV Presenter Andrea Arnold" has a subtext running beneath it. How could someone who was just a presenter have the brains and skill to direct a film? And, what's more, a presenter for children's television! If she'd presented Newsnight - well, we might think it possible - - but only working for children! Isn't that just all that brightly-coloured bouncing-about stuff? Surely anyone can do that?

Yes, infuriating. And showing, too - in passing - the deep-seated contempt for children that there is in this country. Perhaps, when Andrea Arnold's made a few more films, they will stop describing her in this way. Then they'll start calling her Most Promising Newcomer instead.

Monday, February 12, 2007

The Great Fire of Roundhay

It’s a great park, Roundhay Park in Leeds, in essence: two lakes, woodland, flower beds and huge lawns. Landscaped parts and wild parts. Great walks. Wildlife. .

But they’re not very good at some things. By “they” I mean the people who decide what amenities there should be in the park.

When I was little there was a small fairground – nothing fancy, just some swing boats and a helter skelter and a little train and a few dodgems. I loved it. There were also donkey rides. There were boats on the lake, of the Come In Number Three Your Time Is Up kind. Hurrah! A couple of times a year a huge fair came, and I loved that too.

No children’s playground though, of the ordinary, free, slides-and-swings kind, which I always thought was a shame. But there was a maze, for a very short while, and that was great fun.

Several decades passed and finally they built a playground of a non-traditional, but very enjoyable kind, with bridges to walk across and ropes to swing on. It was excellent and Emily spent many hours playing there as a small child.

However, then they decided – I think – that the park should be Gentrified. Brought back to its Victorian glory, or summat.

They chopped a lot of trees down in a truly pointless move to restore the Victorian views. They got rid of the wild playground up on the hill and built a small, sedate one for much younger children, scenically placed next to the car park. Boo. They did away with the fairground – “out of character with the Victorian park” – oh, what rubbish these planners speak! The park is enormous and one little corner of it with a fairground in did no harm at all, and brought a lot of pleasure.

And they built a new café.

Actually, it wasn’t THAT long since the previous café had been built. The earlier incarnation was a bit McNuggets and always seemed to have sold out of everything (it was there I once had the memorable exchange, “Oh, I see, you weren’t expecting anyone to want to eat at lunchtime,” “Yes, that’s right, we weren’t.”)

Anyway, they stripped it out and made it posher and it took ages and ages so there was no café in the park for what seemed like years and years, and probably was years and years. Then they reopened it and it was all duck-with-chocolate-and-a jus-of-blackcurrants kind of food. Very Bay Windows Very Cut Glass, as my friend Connie (85) would say.

And we all got used to there being, finally, a café, posh but nevertheless popular, and with a great view across the lake.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, it set itself on fire in the middle of the night and – because it’s not very near any houses – it was very extensively damaged. Here are some of the holes in the roof.

So now it’s closed "for the foreseeable future". They seem to think that the fire was caused by an electrical fault – in which case, WHY? It had only been open for about a year, so it seems distinctly possible that they didn’t do the electrics right in the first place.

Oh well, I expect they’ll replace it in a few years’ time.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

In Touch

Many thanks to Ailbhe for putting the link to the Radio Four programme In Touch as a comment on Save the Children, my post of February 7. You can still listen to the programme here:

Many blind people had complained that the programme showed blind people in a bad light: they argued that there are not many programmes about blind people on television and to show one which shows them in such a negative way is to do a disservice to blind people.

I don’t agree: I don’t think that the fact that the couple were blind was really the issue. In fact, if we are only ever to see programmes about blind people that show them as wonderful, caring, coping beings, then we are, most certainly, treating them as a special minority, different from the rest of us.

Accepting that blind people can have all the personality traits, good and bad, that the rest of us have, is to treat them with respect.

What we don’t do is portray blind people in a positive light in the rest of television. In television dramas you never get a character who just happens to be blind, if the blindness is not central to the storyline – and the same is true of any other disability. If someone’s blind, or deaf, or in a wheelchair, it’s because it’s part of the plot. That’s the real issue as far as blind people are concerned.

Below is the comment that I left on the In Touch website:

I am not blind and listened to the discussion on "In Touch" about Jane Treays' film about Paul and Amanda and their children with interest.

I saw the programme twice. To me it was perfectly clear that the problem was not caused by the couple's blindness - it was caused by their learning difficulties, their background and their personalities.

Neither was the issue the lack of support for blind people with families - Paul and Amanda had turned down almost all support offered. The central issue, to me, was the exploitation of the older children and the deprived lives they led: and whether we, as a society, should allow a couple like these to turn down support.

I believe that, no matter what the cost, we should insist that this family have a rota of carers to help. Whether this couple should have had so many children is not a relevant issue now: whether they are blind is not an issue. The children need saving from lives of boredom and drudgery.

At least some of us sighted people have enough sense to know that many blind people can cope brilliantly with their families: others can not. Just like sighted people, in fact. Please don't let the fact that the couple were blind divert the debate from the central issues of the programme.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

On Not Listening to the Answer

As I have mentioned before, one of my jobs is helping to teach communication skills to medical students and other health professionals, usually with the use of roleplay.

One of the mistakes the students habitually make is that, in their haste to think of the next question to ask, they don’t listen to the answer you have just given and hence they give a completely inappropriate response. It’s particularly likely to happen to the ones who, in a state of near-panic, are going through a checklist in their heads.

So you get something like this:

“So you’re Mrs. Claire Green?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Good. And you’ve been suffering from irritable bowel syndrome for five years?”


“Lovely. And are both your parents alive and well?”

“No, we were all in a plane that crashed in Canada when I was a child. I ate both my parents and then I was brought up by wolves.”

“Excellent. And are you on any medication?”

- Oh, all right, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the general idea. And it happened to me last week. For real! With a real Medical Person.

I had gone for a mammogram (and, thankfully, the result was fine, or I wouldn’t be making so light of it).

So, after a few questions about age, date of birth etc, she asked:

“And have you had a mammogram before?”

“Yes, in 2003.”

“Excellent. But you were surely a bit young to be on the programme. Was there any reason for it?”

“Yes. My mother was given a drug called Stilboestrol when she was pregnant with me and it has doubled my risk of breast cancer.”

“Brilliant! Well, if you’d like to take off your top - - “

If this sort of thing happens to you, I would ask you to stop, look at them in a puzzled manner and ask them very sweetly to repeat what they just said. If we all do it, every time, eventually they might all start to listen properly, and not just talk to us in automatic talking-to-patient-speak. And that would be a very good thing for the future of medical care.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Save the Children

If you want to become a zookeeper specialising in, say, llamas, you would not be allowed to do the job without some training.

What a shame this doesn’t apply to having children.

Last night I watched a documentary shown recently on Channel Four: Age Twelve and Looking After the Family, made by Jane Treay.

Paul and Amanda are blind and are parents of six children. Louise is twelve: Jenny is nine: they do almost all the work of looking after their four small brothers.

Paul and Amanda are too disabled to work, they say, so they stay at home all the time with their children. They can cope, they say: they will not accept help from social services apart from two hours’ cleaning per week.

But they are blind, in every sense of the word.

The house is filthy. The children are filthy. Not just grubby. Grubby, of the kind that comes from playing outside and is followed by a hot bath and a good meal, is good. No, these children are filthy of the deep, ingrained kind. Their clothes are filthy.

The four younger children hardly ever seemed to leave the house. The ones in nappies had their nappies put on before the two older girls left for school, and then not changed until they got back again.

The children didn’t eat from plates, to save on washing-up, and nobody seemed to do any cooking. Sandwiches and fish and chips seemed to be the sum of the food. The baby was filmed eating scraps of bread off the filthy floor. Later he was filmed crawling under the dustbin.

The younger of the two girls had tried to kill herself by putting a black plastic bag over her head. The older sister didn’t like her and was filmed hitting her. The older sister put the baby to bed by doing exactly that: dumping him in the cot. Did anyone read the younger children a story or give them a cuddle? No. There didn’t seem to be any books anyway.

The elder daughter said she didn’t want children herself, she’d had enough of looking after children. When the younger daughter refused to care for the children at one point, the father pointed out to her that she was likely to be removed from the Young Carers’ support group, who occasionally took her for a day out, away from the drudgery of it all.

Both the girls said that their parents were great, but that they themselves were always tired. The commentary – clearly the programme-maker wisely covering herself - made the point that “There is no doubt that Paul and Amanda love their children, but - - “

I would dispute that. I saw no evidence of love for those children, of concern for their welfare, of trying to provide anything that would make them fulfilled or happy. When asked why they enjoyed having so many children, Amanda said that they would be able to look after her and her husband in their old age. When asked what she said when the midwife asked her to stop smoking while pregnant, she said “Oh, I just ignore them.”

All right, some parents do things differently. But what we saw here was neglect of the little boys and exploitation and neglect of the two girls. Cruelty to children. Not deliberate cruelty, perhaps, but cruelty nevertheless.

The parents want more children: Amanda wants eight in total. Not, of course – and here I really do sound like Daily Mail Reader – that they earn any money to support their children, because they are blind, so they can’t possibly be expected to.

What is needed is for someone to say THIS to the parents – though perhaps with slightly more tact:

You are not looking after your children properly. Because you are blind, you cannot see how neglected they are. They are badly fed, badly clothed, filthy and you cannot see the daily danger they are in simply living in the house. They are lacking any kind of mental stimulation and any knowledge of the world outside this house. You are cruel to them, even though you don’t know it. They don’t know it and they love you because you are the only parents they have ever had.

You are very bad parents at the moment and we as a society will not put up with it. For the sake of the children – not for your sake, for you should not have been so stupid as to have had so many children – you must accept more help, because the children need it. We will provide round-the-clock carers to take the burden off your daughters. It will cost the taxpayer thousands, but that doesn’t matter, because six children might just be saved from terrible, damaged adult lives, and from passing on the damage to their children in turn.

Finally, you must not have any more children – if you do, they will be taken into care at birth and given to loving parents who will look after them properly.

Oh, I know there are thousands and thousands of children in this country who are living terrible lives, and this family are just the ones who have been brought to our attention. And there are no perfect parents. But most parents are Good Enough, and Paul and Amanda just aren’t.

If you want to adopt a dog from the RSPCA, you have to have a home visit and fill out lots of forms, and quite right too. But anyone can have children, and we’re so worried about infringing the parents’ rights that we’re in danger of ignoring the parents’ responsibilities and, most importantly, the children’s rights.

Sod the parents. Save the children.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Hill Sixty

I’ve known Hill Sixty for as long as I can remember. It’s a steep hill to one side of the Arena in Roundhay Park in Leeds. In this photograph, which I took in yesterday morning's winter sunshine, Hill Sixty is in the background with the Arena in front of it.

I’ve never been told why it is called that but there was fierce fighting at Ypres on a place called Hill Sixty in the First World War and I think it must have been named after that.

When I was a child, the whole hill had been cut into neat grassy steps which you could sit on with your picnic whilst watching the events in the Arena.

The most interesting annual event was Children’s Day – we used to go every year when I was small and there were parades, sports, competitions and maypole dancing. Children from all over the city took part.

Finally, when I was seven, it was my turn. I was picked for Gledhow Primary School Maypole Dancing Team! I was thrilled.

We practised for weeks, at lunchtimes and after school. Every primary school in Leeds had a team learning the same dances. You stood in a circle, each with a ribbon attached to the central maypole, and then, to various English folk tunes, danced under one ribbon, over the next until they made a pretty plait down the central pole. I can still remember the wonder of it.

Finally the great event drew near and we all had to buy white cotton dresses with sticky-out skirts – I loved mine and was so excited by the idea of wearing it and dancing in the Arena.

Then the great day dawned and with it came the rain. Not just drizzle, but bucketing, impossibly ferocious rain. I couldn’t believe it. Not on Children’s Day!

After a couple of hours came the incredible news that Children’s Day was cancelled. It felt like the end of the world. Leeds rang to the sound of children’s sobbing.

There never was another Children’s Day – the city had lost heart. And now, although the Arena is still used for concerts and other events, the grassy steps have nearly gone and Hill Sixty is just a row of bumps.

Monday, February 05, 2007

A Pacific School Trip

Roundhay High School for Girls was not very hot on school trips when I was a pupil there. We had a day trip to Liverpool, to look at both cathedrals – not something that would thrill most teenagers nowadays, it has to be said.

We had a few trips to the theatre in London, but they were organised by one particular teacher and weren’t “official” school trips.

And, in my “O”- level year and again in my “A” – level year there was a ten-day cruise round the Mediterranean, but I didn’t go because I was too busy with work for my exams. Typical of that school – it indoctrinated you with the idea that top exam grades were the only possible route to a decent life - - and then offered you temptation, just to see how well the indoctrination had worked.

And that was it for my school trips.

By the time Emily was at secondary school, there were some developments – she went to France with the school in Year Eight, and managed to stay in the only place in France that did crap food. However, I think she enjoyed it, mostly, and I still use the Bayeux Tapestry bag that she brought me back.

There was a trip to Canada organised at some point – but it was a skiing trip full of sporty teenagers who’d been skiing in Europe many times, and Emily wasn’t keen. And it was very expensive, bearing in mind that they could have spent a week skiing in Europe far more cheaply.

But today I learned something that has shaken my whole School Trips view of the world.

My cousin’s daughter Olivia, age nearly sixteen, is setting off on Friday for her school trip. Ten days. In Galapagos.

Yes, the Galapagos Archipelago. Six hundred miles to the left of Ecuador. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Thirteen islands, three of them inhabited. Giant tortoises. Fantastic wildlife. Five thousand square miles in the middle of nowhere, as seen on Life on Earth and several hundred documentaries since.

Would I like to go there? Well, to me, that’s like saying “Would you like to go to Mars?” For my impact on global warming through air travel is, well, small – I haven’t been on a plane since 1999 and that was only to Amsterdam. In fact I think I have made fewer than ten trips by plane in my entire life. So, Galapagos – I can’t think how exciting that would be. I’m pretty excited by the idea of a day trip to the Dales.

Of course, Olivia is at school in Harrogate in wealthy North Yorkshire, and although it’s a comprehensive school, clearly they feel able to say to the parents, “We’re off to Galapagos on a school trip, that’ll be two and a half grand please.”

So – do I approve (the trip of a lifetime, at age sixteen)? or disapprove (the encouragement of plane travel in teenagers with rich parents who’ve had it all handed to them on a plate and might well take it all for granted anyway)?

Oh, look, if Emily had been offered a similar trip, and had wanted to go, she’d have gone. We’d have found the money somehow. But – and in my mind, it’s a big but – I think it’s a shame that some of today’s teenagers are going halfway across the world to see spectacular countryside and wildlife without ever getting to know the countryside and wildlife that’s nearby.

Emily very much appreciates all holidays, no matter where. For some of these rich kids, every holiday they’ve ever had has been abroad. And any parents who think that their one-year-old is going to enjoy Tahiti more than Tenby are deluding themselves.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

It'll Get Us In The End

When the last two dinosaurs died, just as they collapsed to the ground, one turned to the other and said “Just as I expected. A meteorite. Told you so.”

Actually, this never happened. And it won’t happen with people either.

When I was a child it was polio that was going to kill us all. The mere mention of it made us shudder. We had all seen photographs of the scary Iron Lungs that children with polio were put in to help them breathe. The brother of one of my schoolfriends actually caught it but managed to survive though one of his legs was damaged.

The smallpox – terrible killer of previous generations - had nearly gone, as had the typhoid. The horrific influenza epidemic of 1918 had faded from folk-memory: we thought that “flu” was something that could be cured with paracetamol and a couple of days in bed. We were all inoculated against tuberculosis. No, after the polio we stopped worrying for a bit, until AIDS appeared in the eighties and that became the thing that was going to kill us all. “Don’t Die of Ignorance” went the posters. Claire Rayner waved a condom around on television – unthinkable before AIDS.

AIDS is still around, but, because it hasn’t killed vast numbers of heterosexual people, we as a society have stopped worrying about it.

We had a brief flirtation with the idea that we would all die from rabies caused by French foxes crossing the Channel Tunnel, before turning our attentions to SARS. We worried about that for a few months before settling on Bird Flu as the thing that would kill us all.

When we had fretted about it all last winter and we still hadn’t died, we started to worry about Global Warming and the newspapers recently have been full of dire warnings about it.

Then, suddenly, lots of turkeys at Bernard Matthews’ vast – and horrific-sounding - turkey farm died from Bird Flu and the rest are going to be killed with gas, according to The Times. So it’ll be back to Bird Flu Worry again.

So, it could be the Bird Flu that gets us all. But, then again, Global Warming sounds quite a good bet for the destruction of mankind. Although my cousin Colin recently watched a Panorama programme from 1975, suggesting that the next ice age was on its way. – Ah yes, but of course we know more now than we did back then. True, but I bet people have always said that.

While we are fretting about the prospect of impending doom, prepared to do anything at all to stave it off – except make fewer journeys by car or plane, obviously – there could well be something coming to get us. It could be something half-expected – another meteorite, or Old Faithful in Yellowstone Park going off bang and taking half the USA with it – but I rather suspect it won’t be.

I think the two last people on Earth will turn to each other in astonishment and say “No! Never! Who would have thought of th - -?”

Friday, February 02, 2007

But If You Could See Her Through My Eyes

I’m the child of a mixed marriage, from a time when such things were much rarer than they are now.

To most people, “mixed marriage” means a mixture of different-coloured people. Not in my case, though: for the Communist is Jewish and my mother is from one of those families perhaps best described as “Christmas C of E” – they did Christenings, Marriage and Death in church, plus a bit of Christmas, and not much in between. Mind you, the Communist’s parents weren’t religious either, or they would have kicked up far more of a fuss when he “married out”.

I didn’t think much about being half-Jewish when I was growing up: we didn’t have any of the Jewish culture or customs or religion. If there was any religion going on in our house, it was, of course, Communism.

But one day something happened that has stayed with me ever after.

My parents were out – I don’t know where – and my brother, aged about two, and I, aged about eleven, were being looked after for the day by my grandmother – my mother’s mother, who lived with us.

Two relatives from my mother’s side of the family suddenly arrived. I never found out whether it was by accident or design that they turned up when my parents were out. I had never seen them before and I didn’t know who they were – they were a man and a woman and that’s all I remember. We never saw them again after that day.

It was summer: it was a hot, sunny day of strange, distant whisperings and half-heard conversations about past times and other places. We had the paddling pool out and my brother and I played in it while the relatives sat on deckchairs a long way from us and chatted to my grandmother. I tried to talk to them a couple of times but they didn’t seem very interested in talking to me, so I just carried on playing in the paddling pool, with my blond-haired brother.

My grandmother went into the house and the relatives tentatively came towards the pool and peered at us in our swimming costumes. I couldn’t hear what they were saying at first. Then, suddenly, I could.

“Oh, it’s not too bad,” said one of them. “They don’t look as awful as I thought. You wouldn’t think they were Jewish at all.”

Thursday, February 01, 2007

A Healthy Health Centre

Today I was working in Dewsbury, a place which has hitherto been as remote to me as, say, Texas.

I was working at Dewsbury Health Centre. I have visited many hospitals in Yorkshire during the course of my work with students, and many of them are run-down and depressing. The walls are covered with faded paint and the ancient orange plastic chairs wobble because their legs came out of alignment many bottoms ago. The waiting-rooms are crowded and claustrophobic.

Not this one! It's very new and I liked it a lot. Here's the huge waiting area:

While I was waiting for my session to start I had plenty of time to try to work out why it felt so good.

The very high ceiling gave it a feeling of space - and in fact, there was space, even if all the chairs had been full. The top part of the ceiling was actually a window, so there was lots of natural light.

The carpet was brown and fawn, which sounds dull, but the green (hurrah!) of the walls and chairs made it more interesting and it gave it all a restful feel. I've been in many hospitals where someone has hoped to cheer the place up by painting everything lemon yellow or bright red or purple and it just feels artificial - "YOU'RE ALL GOING TO DIE! BUT LET'S KEEP SMILING, EH?"

Also, it was neither too hot not too cold - a definite first for any kind of health centre, in my experience. And - perhaps because it's quite new - it didn't have that municipal kind of a smell. Where does that come from? Do they hire someone to come round and empty out disinfectant and piss in equal quantities, just so everyone will know it's that kind of building?

Finally, they had made some effort to give the patients some art to look at while they waited. There were some fabric pictures - predominant colour GREEN hurrah - of the kind that would thrill nobody and offend nobody, but the colours were good.

And, rather more interestingly to me, there was a whole forest of wooden leaves on one wall.

A bit different from the usual Municipal Art and I rather liked them - it was good to see some natural materials in a modern building.

All in all, it looked like a place someone had put some thought into. Of course, environment is very important to help patients to feel comfortable and to aid their recovery. Blindingly obvious, and so rarely put into practice. So it's good to see a medical centre designed by someone who seems to understand that.