Thursday, March 29, 2007

We are greedy robbing bastards

"We might be able to save you some money" so says the blurb from Virgin Media, with regard to our mobile phones.

Paragraph one drones on about various new packages they're introducing, which apply to people who pay line rental. We don't on our tariff, but the calls are slightly more expensive - - anyway, their exciting new offers don't apply to us.

Paragraph two tells me that "The way your call charges are calculated is also going to change. Instead of charging to the nearest second, calls will be rounded up to the next minute. So, for example, a call that lasts 4 minutes 50 seconds will be rounded up to 5 minutes."

They didn't give the example that if your call lasts, for example, 2 minutes 1 second it will be rounded up to 3 minutes, did they? Always rounding up, never rounding down, I notice.

So, let's face it, their headline "We might be able to save you some money" should really have been "We're definitely going to charge you more".

Now that's cleared up, I'm going to finish packing to go to Burgundy. Hurrah.

Sainbury's - Episode Two - The Coffee Gets Vertigo

You may remember how I wrote to Sainsbury’s a couple of weeks ago, about the fact that – whilst insisting that they are promoting Fair Trade goods - they position their Fair Trade coffee really high up, so it’s very hard to find.

Here’s my original letter:

Since the store was refurbished I have seen many notices urging me to buy Fair Trade products. These notices are, for example, very prominent in the café.

All well and good: but why, I wonder therefore, is the Fair Trade coffee not sited on the shelves where it may be easily seen? I am 5’4” tall – not very tall, granted, but not very short either - and it is all way above my eye level.

Surely if Sainsbury’s were really committed to the sale of Fair Trade products, these products would be placed in the most prominent position on the shelves? Is it that the big coffee manufactures, such as Nescafe, insist that their products take pride of place? Or could it be that Sainsbury’s supposed commitment to Fair Trade products is just tokenism?

If you are really committed to increasing the sales of Fair Trade goods – and you should be, and you keep saying you are – then surely putting them in the best position is the least you can do?

I’d be really grateful if you could get back to me on this.

Best wishes (etc)

Here is their reply:

Thank you for your letter.

Sainsbury’s is committed to stocking and selling Fair Trade goods and is very aware of the importance of this.

We also endeavour to provide our customers with the most diverse and extensive range of products we possibly can and I am very sorry that on occasion, you are unable to reach some of the items you require. I would ask you, in future, to please ask a member of staff who will be only too pleased to assist you in obtaining any products you may need.

Whilst writing, may I take this opportunity to thank you for shopping at Sainsbury’s.

Yours sincerely

Nigel Porter
Store Manager

Hey ho, I’m beginning to realise that sorting the world out may take longer than I had hoped. Talk about wilful misunderstanding! Clearly at Sainsbury’s Store Manager School they go to advanced classes in Sidestepping the Issue.

Let’s have another go, shall we?

Dear Mr Porter

Thank you for your letter in reply to my letter of March 8th.

The issue was not that I cannot reach Fair Trade coffee because I am only 5’4”. Many of your customers are about my height. I can reach the Fair Trade coffee, once I know it’s there.

The issue is that the Nescafe and other well-known brands are at my eye level – and that of many of your customers. The Fair Trade coffees, however, are much higher and therefore less easy to see.

If you are serious about promoting Fair Trade coffee, then surely the thing to do is to place the Nescafe – which everyone has heard of – on the top shelf, and the Fair Trade coffee at eye level, where more people might find it and try it. People specifically looking for Nescafe would search and find it anyway.

Is there any reason why you cannot do this?

Best wishes


Of course, I am sure that the reason that they won’t swap the coffee round is because of Nestle’s insistence that their products are in prime position. In fact, one of the actors I work with once made a corporate video about washing powder where the giant manufacturer was insisting on exactly that.

However, I have a feeling that Sainsbury’s aren’t going to tell me this.

So will it be:

1) Stock Reply Number Two?


2) No Reply At All?

I will think of little else next week as I gaze upon the Burgundy countryside.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Of Rabbits and their Religion

Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it -

Cole Porter certainly does it. He writes witty lyrics.

Most people, however, don’t. They try, but what they end up with is tortured rhymes, which they hope will pass for brilliance.

And, searching vainly for something interesting to listen to on my way home from Sheffield tonight, I heard the lines about the Jewish rabbits.

It was in an extended version – with some verses which are usually omitted, and I can see why - of the song Spring, Spring, Spring, which is from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which is a musical I’ve never seen. Even so I was surprised to hear about the rabbits and their religion and their wearing of long monks’ dress, particularly because of their Semitic persuasion.

And Spring Jewish rabbits
Bring on their new habits

After a bit of thought, and long after I’d changed stations, I realised that the rabbits probably weren’t Jewish at all and it was probably the much duller version:

And Spring to each rabbit
Brings on a new habit

But it’s a dreadful lyric: I actually preferred it when the rabbits were wearing yamulkas and eating gefilte fish. And later on in the song came

And if for the stork you pine
Remember the porcupine

NO! Please don’t do this, it hurts my ears and tangles my brain.

Now, as a matter of fact (modest cough) I have a bit of a facility with tortured rhymes myself. But do I feel obliged to inflict them on an innocent public? No, I do not. I enjoy them quietly, in the privacy of my own home, after dark. And if anyone else feels they must write verse along these lines, so should they.

Monday, March 26, 2007


I've been working in Sheffield a bit recently, helping to assess future GPs, and very interesting work it is too.

Sheffield is thirtysomething miles from Leeds straight down the M1.

From Leeds it's not too bad by today's standards - bit of a tailback approaching Sheffield and a further one at Junction 34 by Meadowhall shopping centre (no, I've never been there, I hate shopping centres).

But if you're trying to get from Sheffield to Leeds the traffic tails back every morning to - - yes, Sheffield! It's not a one-off, I've travelled the opposite way lots of times, and Sheffield to Leeds is one big slow-moving traffic jam.

And some people are in it every morning and I don't know - I really don't know - how they stand it. Years ago I heard a play on Radio Four which centred around the whole of the motorway being gridlocked by sheer volume of traffic.

Only I don't think it was a play, it was a documentary set in the near future.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Coming Soon - La Belle France

Almost exactly a year ago, just a couple of weeks after I started this blog, Stephen, Emily, Gareth and I went to Burgundy for a week, to stay in a cottage owned by Graham and Christine Battye.

Graham, from Holmfirth originally, is an old friend who was a radio presenter and producer, and now lives in the delightful mediaeval village of Montreal. With his wife Christine, he runs a bed and breakfast, and just two minutes' walk away is the cottage where we stayed. Here's the view from the cottage:

My main deciding factor in suggesting that we went there was that it's within reach of a day trip to Paris and I had never been to Paris. I didn't know anything about Burgundy; all I knew was that it was a wine-producing region, but although I like wine I don't know much about it.
It was a wonderful holiday in a beautiful part of France: all forests, hills, fields, mediaeval villages and the nature reserve, the Morvan nearby. We had a day trip to Paris, and loved it.
So we are going back for another week, setting off next Friday. We're travelling by car and ferry: Portsmouth to Le Havre, which is what we did last year and it worked well. Eurostar is also good, provided there aren't too many of you - it was simply too expensive from Leeds for four of us.
So, have a look at Graham and Christine's website here and if you would like a fascinating holiday in a lovely place, it could be for you.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Not Always an Ass

I heard an interesting discussion on the radio as I was driving to Sheffield today.

A man had been watching his ten-year-old son playing football for the boy's school team. The father started to take some photographs of the match, hoping that his son would score a goal and that he would be able to capture the moment with his camera.

The mother of one of the other boys in the team came up to him and asked him to stop taking photographs: she was worried that her son would appear in the photographs, and that they might end up on the internet and that paedophiles might see them. The man was told by the school that he could only take photographs of the team if he obtained permission from all their parents.

The same man had also tried to take photographs of his other child's nursery school play, but the school had stopped him. The mother of one of the children had subsequently taken some photographs but nobody had stopped her, so the man felt there was a double standard operating: because he was a man, he was under suspicion.

A lawyer in the studio explained the law in both these cases.

Firstly, the mother had no right to stop the man from taking photographs of the football match: she could if she wished ask him not to take photographs of her son, but there is no legal requirement to abide by this.

Secondly, if an event is happening in a building then the owners of the building can prevent photographs from being taken - such as, for example, in a theatre. So the school was able to prevent people taking photographs of the nursery school play, for whatever reason. But it could not legally allow some people to take photographs whilst preventing others from doing so.

And to me, for once, the law seemed to have got it right in both these cases. I think it would be ridiculous if you couldn't take photos of your own child - or even other people's children - in a football match without being labelled a paedophile.

There's also often a reason for preventing photos being taken of a school play - not least that you don't want flashes going off every two minutes. But I do think parents should be able to have photographs as a record of it - if they can't take their own, then the school should take some at the dress rehearsal.

What struck me was that the woman who said it was illegal for the father to take photographs of a football match had been believed. A few years ago the reaction would have been "Don't be silly, of course it's not illegal." Now people are more cautious, more ready to believe such things. I think that's a shame - it's helping to create a climate of mistrust and fear.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Past and Present

Very appropriate, the name of this old rather battered shop.
There I was, today, standing in the present and looking at the past.

This was the Communist’s chemist shop in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It’s in Halton, East Leeds and he sold it in 1964 and bought a shop in Acomb, York, where he worked for twenty-two years before he retired.

I don’t think being a pharmacist was the Communist’s dream job, but to his Jewish immigrant parents it was pretty damned good and a way out of poverty and to a steady income – which, indeed, it provided.

Pharmacists frequently seem to live to a ripe old age and many of them are still working well into their seventies. The Communist, however, retired at sixty-two and has so far had twenty-one years of retirement, which is pretty good going.

I think he was very good at his job – certainly, his staff still send him Christmas and birthday cards after twenty-one years. He always worried about dispensing the wrong drug – frequently the pharmacist had to sort out the doctor’s mistakes – and although it never happened he still has nightmares about it.

I remember going to this shop when I was a very small child – the strange scents, the comparative darkness of its interior - but had never been back since. I wasn’t sure exactly where it was. Today, however, I took the Communist and my mother shopping for clothes at nearby Matalan (yes, fine, we got the clothes that they wanted and I hope I won’t suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder for too many weeks to come).

So as we left Matalan I asked the Communist to show me where his shop was, and we drove past it, and I stopped to take this photograph - dodging a rather large bus, which is why the photo’s a bit sideways.

Near the shop was a railway line with a steeply sloping field next to it and Mum and I sometimes went there after visiting the Communist in his shop. The field was left to grow wild and it was there, one August in the early 1960s, that I first saw harebells and was enchanted by their delicate purple flowers. I’ve thought of that field whenever I’ve seen harebells since.

Interesting how the present can take you so strongly back to the past.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Evil for Ever

Born evil, always evil, evil without the possibility of change.

Is that true? Certainly many people feel that way about Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, murderers of three-year-old James Bulger in 1993. They abducted him from a shopping centre, you remember, and took him on a two and a half mile walk, torturing him on the way, before killing him.

They served eight years in young offenders’ institutions before being released on licence with new identities when they were eighteen.

What they did was horrific and the internet is full of stories about them. Who knows whether or not the stories are true?

Today I was sent an email – which has clearly been doing the rounds for several years, amassing signatures as it goes – objecting to their release.

“They disgustingly and violently took Jamie’s life away and in return they each get a new life!”

Surely it’s not as simple as that. The horror of what they did cannot be overstated – but they were ten years old at the time. If, as a society, we cannot see any possibility of hope of change in such young children, and can consider nothing but eternal punishment for them, then I think we should look carefully at ourselves.

What I thought was really wrong was the content of the email. I’m a fast reader so I had read it before I realised I didn’t want to. It described in great detail what the two boys had done to James Bulger. I don’t know whether or not it was true, but I didn’t want those images in my head, and now they’re there and they won’t go away.

Very irresponsible of whoever started it – and including, I think, a most unpleasant, intended shock-horror-tear-jerking enjoyment of it all. I think this parody of the news coverage at the time sums it all up rather well. I won’t be forwarding the email to anyone.

Painting Paradise

I enjoy driving at night on a clear road. If there’s a good programme on the radio, so much the better. Tonight, driving back from Huddersfield, I was enjoying listening to a programme about Joni Mitchell when suddenly my whole world picture changed.

Of course they played her best-known songs, one of which is, of course, Big Yellow Taxi. You can listen to a clip of it here, just in case you can’t immediately bring it to mind.

Suddenly, I heard something I’d never heard before. I first listened to this song when I was very small. Tonight I realised that, having misheard the lyrics the first time I ever heard the song, all these years I’ve continued to mishear them. This is what I heard:

“They paint Paradise, and put up a parking lot.”

When I was little I didn’t know what a parking lot was but I worked out, from the context, that it must be some kind of nasty car park. So why did they paint Paradise? My interpretation of it was either

a) that somebody painted a picture of Paradise and then added a car park in an ironic gesture


b) that they painted Paradise out, obliterated it with paint: an unpleasant grey colour, most likely. Then they replaced it with a car park.

Either of these interpretations seemed perfectly valid to me, and have done so for years. Decades. But then, tonight, driving along on a quiet road, I heard the lyrics again.

“They paved Paradise and put up a parking lot.”

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaah. PAVED. Oh, I see.

Still, this song contains one of the best lines ever:

“Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you got till it’s gone”.

I often think of that line, because it’s so true of many things in life.

However, if that’s not, in fact the line, and that she was really singing something about how you don’t know water’s hot, please don’t tell me. I have coped with enough change for one day.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Keeping Things

Tonight I sorted great heaps of ancient junk. In this house we have bonus junk, because the house has belonged to this family since 1959 and nobody has, it seems, thrown anything away since then.

My parents moved in here with my grandmother and me when I was three. My brother was born. Years passed. Junk accumulated.

I grew up and moved out, leaving some of my junk behind. Old schoolbooks. Old clothes. Old drawings. Old games.

Then, some years later, my brother did the same thing when he went to Leicester Poly (later rechristened De Montfort University, in a glorious example of Bigging Itself Up).

After university my brother moved firstly to Brussels and thence to Amsterdam, where he has lived for nearly twenty years. He moved smoothly on a Leicester-Brussels trajectory, omitting the Collect-Junk-in-Leeds part of the journey, and where is his junk? Here, in this house.

Years passed. The house was too big for my parents. We moved back to this house: they had a smaller one built in part of this house’s garden. When they moved out, they left their junk behind.

My brother’s junk included a huge amp. It measures Huge by Enormous and it weighs Ridiculously Heavy. Too good to throw on a skip. Too much hassle to sell. Aaaaargh. But when Emily started going out with Gareth, it was clear that Gareth would make good use of it, so I gave it to him, waving excitedly as it left the house.

Then he moved in here and brought the flaming thing back again.

There was a television programme a while ago when they took everything out of someone’s house, put it all in the garden, and then brought back in only what they really needed. If they tried that with our stuff, the series would have ended before they got it all out into the garden, and if you did take it all out the house would rise about three feet into the air.

The trouble is, a lot of this junk is appealing. When a magazine is five weeks old, you can chuck it without a thought. When it’s five years old, however, it becomes a lot more interesting. And ooh look, old Christmas stamps, I remember those! Aaah, my first mobile, that has to be kept if only to show Emily what the Olden Days were like. Oh look, Emily’s drawings from when she was five - - aaaah - - and my brother’s drawings from when he was five - - and my drawings from when I was five - -

Oh, some things I just can’t chuck. But I did manage to throw away The Beermat That was In a Play Once. It’s a start.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Sorry, Lucy, but no thank you

Here's a small ad I saw yesterday:

"Let me draw your pet from a photograph in my own exciting style" says Lucy.

I don't usually like drawings or paintings of animals, and I'm trying to pin down exactly why not. I can see the skill involved in the best animal artists, such as David Shepherd, though I prefer the bird paintings of, say, Charles Tunnicliffe, because he frequently captures the landscape as well as the birds - and I love evocative landscape paintings. The same is true of Peter Scott.

I don't particularly want a painting of a tiger on my wall, as in David Shepherd's paintings, though, because, to me, a photograph can capture the power and beauty of a tiger just as well as a painting. Whereas a good portrait of a human being will capture some of the characteristics of that particular person as perceived by the artist - - and that, to me, adds another level of interest.

Many people, however, seem to want portraits of their pets - if you search the internet for "pet portraits" you will find hundreds of people offering to paint your pet.

But because it's almost always done from a photograph, the artist doesn't know any of the characteristics of that animal - and anyway, most pets don't really have facial expressions in the same way that people do. To you, the cat is a member of your family. (Oh yes, and to me too). Paint it from a photograph, however, and it just looks like - well - a cat.

So the artist frequently cannot resist adding a bit of expression to try to make the animal more individual - a mischievous sideways look, a slight curve of the mouth so it looks as though it's smiling.

And there we are - Disneyfication of a kind I really don't like.

So I suppose that's it - if you're not going to do that Disney thing, you paint the animal just as it appears, just like a photograph: some artists are highly skilled at doing this. But to me, that's what cameras are for.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

My Bid for Olympic Glory

Your comments on this blog are, as always, much appreciated. On my last post Ruth made the very sensible suggestion that, since I now have a cross-trainer (oh yes, going very nicely, thank you) and have joined a Yoga class, I should consider which sport I’m going to enter in the next Olympics.

The idea quite attracts me since it’s going to be in London and hence would only require a day trip by train. But if I’m to be remembered with eternal affection by the British public, I need to make sure I make the right choice of sport.

So I did a comprehensive survey of all the people in our house who are up at 9am this morning: and this meant asking Stephen.

“Which British Olympic competitors do you remember?”

He pointed out that I might do better if I asked someone with any interest in competitive sport. “No”, I said, “I want to be remembered by everyone, so you’re a good indication.”

After a few minutes and a bit of prompting he accepted that he had heard of Sebastian Coe “but he became a Tory so I don’t want to think about him”. Then, after a few minutes, we came up with The Other One Who Ran, who wrote I Love You in the air. And the bald one called Duncan who swam. And the one with the moustache in the Seventies. And Paula Radcliffe (he didn’t know what she did, though). Kelly Holmes? - - Who?

So, that’s it, then. Winning gets you temporary glory, but you’re soon forgotten. But Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, now, the bespectacled ski-jumper who never won a thing - - ah, yes, who could forget him?

The British public likes the underdog, of course. So I am going to cast aside my first thought, which was the Whole Paragraph Speed Typing Contest – oh yes, I might win, but nobody would remember me.

Similarly, I think I’d be rather good at the Synchronised Swimming, but I’m not doing it because can anyone name one Synchronised Swimmer? Also it looks truly ridiculous.

No, I’m going to go for the hundred-metre sprint, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, it’s over pretty quickly. Train to London, hang around a bit, do the race, have lunch, trip to the National Portrait Gallery or similar, train back to Leeds. A Grand Day Out without too much hassle.

And although I probably wouldn’t win, I once did really well in it when I was at school, though I expect it was a hundred yards then, not metres. I beat several people who were in the school teams and they all glowered at me. The teacher nearly choked when she checked her stopwatch.

Of course, the only reason I ran so fast was to get the blasted thing over with, and I made jolly sure I never did it again.

But I think that ought to be enough to get me into the Olympic squad. I don’t think I shall be wearing Lycra though – I’ll be going for jeans and a T-shirt, and I’m going to persuade all the others to do the same, or it just won’t be fair.

I think I’ll spend today thinking up a nickname which will endear me to the British public for ever.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Music and Movement

In the beginning there was Music and Movement. Forty of us, give or take an infant, stylishly dressed in vests and knickers, in the school hall. One of those reel-to-reel tape recorders, crackling out a Posh Lady Voice of the kind that says Bet instead of Bat.

“Now then, children, I want you to curl up in a tiny little ball as small as you can. And when the music starts, I want you to pretend that you are a little dormouse waking up after a long winter sleep. Stretch your arms in the air, and then stand up, and then run all around the room looking for something to eat. And now - - off you go!”

“Excuse me,” I wanted to ask, “why am I being asked to do this extremely humiliating activity? I may only be five, but I have my dignity.”

But nobody ever explained. I suppose it was firstly to give us Healthy Exercise and secondly to expand our little imaginations.

Well, I didn’t need the exercise – I got lots of that at playtime, playing whip and top and skipping, and after school, building dens. And, as for the imagination bit, I didn’t like cutesy stories even then.

It didn’t get any better. We graduated to proper P.E., with shorts and shirts. We jumped and ran and waved our arms about and tried - unsuccessfully, in my case - to leapfrog over each other. I don’t know what else we did because it was so boring I have erased it from my memory. Very, very occasionally we could get the apparatus out – ropes and climbing frames. I loved the climbing frames but they were such a rare occurrence that I stopped even hoping for them.

With Girls’ Grammar School came Greek Dance, in royal blue satiny tunics and knickers which our long-suffering mothers had to make. Thank goodness Emily never had to possess such things – I would have said “Tell them to get stuffed” and an Unpleasant Incident would have followed.

All I remember of it was the unbelievable tediousness and the rather overenthusiastic female teacher shouting “ A little one - - a BIG one - - a little one - - a BIG one!” over and over again. A little what? Can’t remember. Didn’t care. Get me out of there. Even double maths was preferable.

I wasn’t good at P.E., but then I wasn’t terribly bad at it either. I wasn’t very fat, or very thin, or bullied in any way by other children because of it. I was just average. And bored out of my skull.

What did all this school P.E. do? Make me fit? – Well, I was pretty fit already – lots of walking, swimming, cycling and general Playing Out of the kind that, sadly no longer happens, now there are cars everywhere and a paedophile lurking behind every bush.

No, all it achieved, apart from teaching me the meaning of the word “dull” was to put me off any form of exercise in a class for a while. By “a while” I mean several decades. Walking, swimming, even tennis, fine. But judo? Get lost. Karate? No chance. That Eighties go-for-the-burn stuff in legwarmers? Oh, please. Yoga? Isn’t that all very knit-your-own-lentils?

But, a few weeks ago, I joined a yoga class, because it’s run by the mother of one of Emily and Gareth’s friends, and I liked her, so I thought I’d give it a try. And it’s interesting. And I’m really enjoying it. Amazing.

It is, of course, entirely possible that I have missed out on a number of great exercise-class experiences over the years, because I was put off so much by school. Draw your own conclusions.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Collective Noun for Bankers

“ - - Rod Laver. For the second time.”

“Good. And can you tell me the value of pi? The first twelve places will do.”


“The capital of Latvia, please?”


“Thank you, you have successfully completed the twenty-three security questions. And how may I help you today?”

“I’ve just got my bank statement and you have charged me £20 for an unauthorised overdraft. And I don’t want to pay it.”

“Hmm - - let me look - - well, on 18th February your account did dip just beyond your overdraft limit.”

“Yes, and on 19th February my pay came into the account. So it was over the limit for just one day and then it roared healthily into the black”

“Yes, well, according to the terms and conditions you still have to pay the £20.”

“May I just point out to you that we have been customers of your bank for over twenty years, and that you have made lots and lots of money from us in that time? And also that our mortgage is with you and you are making squillions of pounds from that too? So kindly waive the £20 fee.”

“Well, the terms and conditions apply to everyone, no matter how long they’ve been customers of the bank.”

“I see. So perhaps I’ll just change to the Halifax, like everyone else. Could you give me the bank manager’s name so I can write to explain why?”

“Errr - - could you hold the line a minute?”

I am to write to the manager who will look favourably upon reimbursing my £20.

Banks in general are thinking of ending free banking, apparently, and charging us a monthly fee for the privilege of lending them our money. Come on, folks, let’s not put up with it. Query every blasted charge they try to make. They make millions in profits every year, unlike me and, very probably, you.

Remember: the collective noun for Bankers is a Wunch.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Pelastusrengas in the Lake Again

As you suspected, Pelastusrengas is Finnish for Lifebuoy. Here in Leeds, we keep ours in the lake, mostly:

There it was, in Waterloo Lake, Roundhay Park, this morning, floating merrily near the middle.

Perhaps whoever chucked it in thought that it might save time, if anyone should happen to fall in, if the lifebuoy was already there, ready and waiting. How very considerate.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Sunshine in Scunthorpe

Where would you be, you broad East Anglian sky
Without church spires to recognise you by?

So asked John Betjeman, a poet so far out of favour now that I can't find the rest of the poem on the internet, so you're only getting the bit that I remember, I'm afraid.

Betjeman was writing of further south - but he might as well have been in Lincolnshire, where I was this afternoon.

Once you start to travel east towards Hull two things happen:

1) the amount of traffic diminishes mightily

2) the land becomes very, very flat.

I'm not used to all these great wide prairies. In West Yorkshire, or the Yorkshire Dales, or the Lake District, there are hills everywhere, and you never see all of anything. You see part of a house, or part of a tree, or part of a farm - but the rest is blocked by hills, or buildings or trees on hills.

Travelling across the flat lands of Lincolnshire, everything is presented to you whole and complete, like a painting in a child's picture book.

HOUSE, your brain says, and there it is, all the windows and doors and the fence around it and the toys in the garden.

TREE - and there we have it, trunk, branches, everything, like a lesson on How to Draw a Tree in Proportion

SKY - all blue and uninterrupted except for a few white wispy clouds.

TRAIN - - the engine and all the carriages, like a model train pictured on its box.

After marvelling at all this - and it did look very appealing across the fields in today's glorious Spring sunshine - I arrived in Scunthorpe, which in spite of its intitgrimupNorth comedy name, seemed a pleasant place - though very flat, oh yes - with a strong sense of identity.

Then I arrived at Scunthorpe United Football Ground, where Kevin Keegan once played. Nothing to do with football: I was doing some medical roleplay there. Never before have I done such work with this view from the window:

The people I was working with were excellent and it all seemed to go very well. It always cheers me when I come across doctors, or trainee doctors, with superb communication skills and people teaching them who really know what they're doing.

I can't tell you more detail about the roleplay work I was doing, because it was part of an assessment. But on a day like today when it all went well and the sun shone too, doing this work felt like a privilege.

As the lady serving in the garage said, "You want to buy a lottery ticket while you're in Scunthorpe, sweetheart, it's the luckiest place in England."

Hankies out again

Here's a better link to Sinead O'Connor singing Nothing Compares To You - thanks, John.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Nothing Compares to You - The Video

Just in case you haven't ever heard Sinead O'Connor singing Nothing Compares to You - which, as I pointed out yesterday, is the Saddest Song in the World - you can watch it here - though it's annoyingly out of sync so it might be better to close your eyes and just listen.

Sunday, March 11, 2007


I bought some flowers today and on the wrapping it said
"Guaranteed to Live for Five Days"
Well, that's a better guarantee than we human beings ever get.

The Saddest Song in the World

Driving back from the supermarket this morning, I suddenly realised that I was no longer able to see properly. No medical reason, fortunately – it was just that I was listening to the radio and, without any kind of warning, they had suddenly started playing Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares to You, which is the saddest song in the world and which always makes me cry.

You may well remember the video which accompanied it, which consisted mostly of Sinead O’Connor singing and crying. And it gets me every time: I just need to hear the beginning:

It’s been seven hours and fifteen days
Since you took your love away

That’s it. I’m in floods of tears. It’s an unusual song – strange rhythm, strangely repetitive tune building up to the chorus:

‘Cos nothing compares
Nothing compares to you

It doesn’t look much written down but she sings it with tremendous passion and gets every nuance out of it.

When it came out in 1990 I was suffering from post-natal depression, grieving – after five years - for the loss of my first baby and unable, therefore, to enjoy my second baby Emily as I should have been able to. So although it’s a love song I also tuned in to the loss and grief in it.

When they’re going to play it on the radio, I do think they should warn me first.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Loo of the Year

Whilst doing some ironing today I watched a television programme that I recorded a few weeks back, probably by mistake.

Still, it was Quite Interesting and good to iron to, not requiring total concentration.

It was about a chap from Winchester who has spent the last twenty years investigating the public toilets of Britain, trying to keep up standards of cleanliness and prevent them being closed.

It was a strange, peculiarly British programme, managing to cover both British eccentricity and the Class Issue at one blast.

One hotel-owner had a model of his sister, which made farting noises and which he kept in the gents’ loo in his hotel – who could fail to find this hilarious? He certainly thought it was. Then there was the Duchess of Northumberland who had installed a very well-designed public toilet in the tree house at Alnwick Garden (oh yes, Lady Northumberland or whatever we commoners must call you, very nice toilet and the fountains in the garden looked spectacular on telly – what a shame they weren’t working when we visited the Alnwick Garden in 2005).

It all culminated in the Loo of the Year awards at some fancy place (look, I was doing the ironing, don’t expect factual accuracy) where Jenny the past-her-youth toilet cleaner from Blackpool, all cigarette-voice and bleached hair, met the Duchess of Northumberland, youthful, pretty, all I’m-just-like-everyone-else and posh vowels.

“So, when are you coming back to Blackpool then?” asked Jenny
“I’ve – er – never been to Blackpool,” confessed the Duchess. Jenny looked amazed and then invited her to visit her home. There’s one visit that will never happen, I can tell you now.

All very praiseworthy, this quest for better public toilets: but the committee who decided who should get the awards all looked like dead ringers for members of the Hurrah for Hitler society, or similar, which was a bit worrying. One of them actually said, “There was this toilet cleaner – one of our coloured friends - -anyway, she was very good - - “

I’d like to say you don’t hear that sort of thing very often any more, but perhaps I don’t move in the right circles. Or the wrong circles, depending upon your point of view.

Friday, March 09, 2007

At the Doctor's

A rather strange day, medically-speaking, though not perhaps as strange for me as others might find it.

In the morning I was working with some medical students, acting the role of a patient for them to practise their communication skills. They were at quite an advanced level and wanted a high level of challenge and so I found myself improvising the role of a woman with a terminal illness in an interview with one of the students.

Although the situation is fictitious, the emotions are real - after all, there is certain to be a doctor and patient having a similar conversation in a real hospital at this moment - and I find that the only way I can do it is to think myself into what it would be like to be that person. Hence it's quite demanding, though I do find it really rewarding when they say they find it very useful - which today's students did.

And, if any of you are cynical about the use of roleplay for such teaching - well, all I can say is that it feels totally real at the time; and isn't it far better for the students - who occasionally say something completely inappropriate - to practise on me, and others doing the same job as I do, rather than to practise on real patients?

In the afternoon I found myself at the doctor's for real - or with the nurse, to be precise - having a routine cervical smear. There's a low response rate to calls for this test, because it is so - well, unpleasant as well as undignified, and anyone who says it's not is probably a male doctor. But it is important to have it done and so - only six months overdue, having stalled for ages like most women - I did.

"Oh, well done! Your cervix is really easy to find!" said the nurse.

That's not the sort of thing you hear every day.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Sainsbury's - Try Something New Today!

Dear Sainsbury’s

Since the Moortown store was refurbished I have seen many notices urging me to buy Fair Trade products. These notices are, for example, very prominent in the café.

All well and good: but why, I wonder therefore, is the Fair Trade coffee not sited on the shelves where it may be easily seen? I am 5’4” tall – not very tall, granted, but not very short either - and it is all way above my eye level.

Surely if Sainsbury’s were really committed to the sale of Fair Trade products, these products would be placed in the most prominent position on the shelves? Is it that the big coffee manufactures, such as Nescafe, insist that their products take pride of place? Or could it be that Sainsbury’s supposed commitment to Fair Trade products is just tokenism?

If you are really committed to increasing the sales of Fair Trade goods – and you should be, and you keep saying you are – then surely putting them in the best position is the least you can do?

I’d be really grateful if you could get back to me on this.

Best wishes


I have given back the climbing ropes that I borrowed to reach the Fair Trade coffee and I am beginning to recover from the altitude sickness. I’ll let you know when Sainsbury’s reply. Of course, if they don’t reply there may be an Unpleasant Incident involving some rearranging of the coffee on the shelves and my next post may be from Armley Jail.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Cross Trainer

Swimming and walking are what I like best, especially swimming before breakfast – it makes you feel great for the rest of the day.

Sadly I haven’t got a swimming pool. Sometimes I manage a walk before our office opens, but not always. And sometimes it’s tipping it down and although that would not deter me from walking in somewhere with lots of scenery, it tends to put me off going to the park.

And my right leg, which had a deep-vein-thrombosis in 1984, needs to walk a lot or it hurts a lot. The other leg has no say in the matter.

So, a few weeks ago I bought a machine called a cross trainer and now, rather sheepishly, I am telling you about it.

Here’s a picture of it. See that really skinny woman on the left with the ever-so-shiny white teeth? Well, that’s not me.

It’s very easy to use – you stand on it, hold its handles, and walk. Playing fast music helps. In the first weeks of owning it I went through a whole tape of Celtic Jigs and Reels - it’s possible I may never want to hear another one. I tried classical music, but sadly The Lark Ascending may be sublime listening and one of my favourites but as walking-fast music it’s rubbish.

But the good thing about the machine is that it requires nothing except getting on it and walking. You don’t have to dress from head to toe in Lycra and you don’t need very expensive trainers and you don’t have to get changed in smelly changing rooms.

I’ve been walking on it several times a day, though never very far – about a kilometre and a half every time, as fast as I can. It has made me feel fitter, and, ironically, that has made me go for more “real” walks and also swimming, and eat more healthily too (though my diet wasn’t bad before; as a Type 2 diabetic I have to pay it serious attention anyway).

Lots of people said I wouldn’t use the machine, or not for very long, but I do seem to be using it on a daily basis and I plan to keep on doing so. So, having been one of those people who have always mocked gym addicts along the lines of “what’s wrong with walking or swimming?” I am now eating my words a bit.

I’ll let you know how I get on, unless I stop using the cross trainer in the next week and stick it in the garage, never to be seen again, in which case you will hear no more.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Two Films

For years and years I’ve missed out on films – I have seen lots and lots of theatre but have never seen as many films as I would have liked.

I am trying to catch up. Well, a bit, anyway.

In the last few days I have seen two films: the big Hollywood film The Devil Wears Prada, starring Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway, and the BAFTA-winning British film Red Road, directed by Andrea Arnold and starring Kate Dickie and some other excellent actors of whom you’ve never heard.

I would never have gone to see The Devil Wears Prada in the cinema: the title put me right off as I have no interest in fashion as all those who have knowledge of my comprehensive range of inexpensive jeans will testify. I only saw it at all because Gareth had acquired it on DVD. However, it’s a well-made, funny, glossy film with an excellent performance from Meryl Streep as editor of a fashion magazine with some resemblance to Vogue. Her dismissive “That’s all” at the end of every interview with her employees was gloriously chilling.

But The Devil Wears Prada is not exactly, er, deep, in any way at all – it’s not fair to expect it to be – it’s a couple of hours of entertaining froth, with perhaps a bit more to it if you happen to recognise the famous fashion designers who as listed in the credits “As Himself” at the end.

But it won’t stay with me, unlike Red Road, which is as far from it as could possibly be imagined. Comparing these two films is like comparing an immaculately-coiffured poodle at Crufts with a wolf.

Red Road is a darkly thrilling film set in Glasgow. Glossy it ain’t. The acting is so naturalistic you feel you’re watching a documentary – but a particularly gripping one. It has a really good story, which is superbly told and paced and avoids the predictable. I thought before I saw it that it might be “arty” and hence difficult to follow, or too dark to see what was going on. That’s not the case at all.

Red Road’s far more disturbing viewing – but it’s the one I’ll be watching again.

Sunday, March 04, 2007


The lunar eclipse last night was fantastic. The skies over Leeds were totally clear for much of the time and so we could watch as the Earth’s shadow gradually crept across the face of the Moon, until finally the Moon became a reddish colour when it was completely covered by the shadow. The red is because of dust in the Earth’s atmosphere, apparently.

What really struck me was how, as the shadow covered the Moon, the Moon stopped looking like a flat shiny disc in the sky, and began to look like a sphere. We could see this really clearly through binoculars. My camera’s not good enough to take photographs but many people did, of course: John took some great ones and you can see them here.

The last lunar eclipse that I saw so clearly was in September 1997 – ten years ago! – and it made a big impression on me then, too.

Five hundred years ago, apparently, give or take a week or two, Christopher Columbus was stranded in Jamaica just before a lunar eclipse. The Jamaicans had been friendly to him and to his crew but the crew kept robbing them and treating them badly and finally the Jamaicans cut off Columbus’s supplies.

So Columbus told them, just before a lunar eclipse, that unless they agreed to start providing the provisions again, he would make the Moon disappear - - which of course it did, and the frightened islanders restored the food supplies. I think this story is supposed to make us admire Columbus’s cunning: in fact it makes me think how sad it was that explorers went off creating mayhem and conflict in other people’s countries.

It’s awe-inspiring to see an eclipse, especially a total one. I think that anyone who can look at it and be unaffected by it must be deeply unimaginative. Here’s to clear skies for the next one.

Saturday, March 03, 2007


Here's one of my favourite Victorian poems: it's by Robert Browning:
The year's at the spring
And day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven;
The hillside's dew-pearled;
The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn:
God's in His heaven—
All's right with the world!
It's not a poem ever to recite at any kind of reciting-poetry occasion because you will say "The snail's on the wing - - " and then start giggling uncontrollably. Trust me, I know. However, it does sum up my feelings about Spring - that sudden feeling of winter's-over joy.
Not that we've really had much of a winter here: I think we did have a light dusting of snow one day accompanied by much panic, and a day of really very scary winds.
But now we have catkins - always very cheery, I think: - these were in Ingleton last weekend:

And the daffodils are coming out. This one was in Golden Acre Park, near Leeds, yesterday. I didn't pick it, of course, just wanted it to show its best side for the camera:

And here, also at Golden Acre Park, are some winter trees enjoying the spring sunshine.

And, as I mentioned on Thursday, there is frogspawn in the pond which to me is the key indicator that Spring is on its way. When I was a child, there was very occasionally frogspawn in late February (I kept an annual frogspawn diary. I was that sort of child) so that hasn't changed too much.

But daffodils? I always associate them with Easter and even a very early Easter happens well into March. Global warming again, I think.

Friday, March 02, 2007

A Grey Stripe

I'm not usually very good at those visual puzzles, where they show you things from odd angles and you have to guess what they are, and they're usually a Mexican wearing a hat standing in a circle, or a water tap seen from below.

This one's not too difficult though:

It's a dry stone wall seen from above - from the other side of a valley near Ingleton.

You may already know that I love dry stone walls. When you're building one, I'm told, if you pick up a stone you can't put it down again - you have to fit it into the wall. The reason for this is obvious, if you think about it - once you started doing that you'd be spending half the day looking for the ideal stone and you'd end up in a puzzled, exhausted heap surrounded by a large pile of rejected stones.

I think that dry stone walls look great - they fit very well into the landscape as well as providing homes for mosses, lichens, small animals and nesting birds. I like the history-feel of them too - it's not difficult to imagine the men who made them, out there in the Dales or the Lake District. Down with fences! Up with dry stone walls!

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Back in the Swim

I love swimming. A warmish sea is best, of course, one with waves to float on and jump over, and some rocks and cliffs to look at. Failing that, a coldish sea; and failing even that, a freezing cold sea – I’ll hate getting in, but I’ve never once regretted it.

And, failing the sea, then lakes, or rivers – but there aren’t many places you can swim in rivers these days, they are held to be Too Dangerous.

But after all that lot, right down at the bottom of the list of swimmable places, is the Municipal Swimming Pool. After a few months of swimming in one, the hideous elements of it – the screaming, the showers that don’t work, the too-small lockers with broken locks, to name but a few - get to me and I stop for a while.

But then the desire to swim gets the better of me, and off I go, this evening, Spring in the air, frogspawn in the pond, off to the pool.

Not too crowded tonight. There is a rope down the middle. Two-thirds of the pool is for people who can’t swim very well, or who don’t want to swim at all, but prefer to stand in the shallow end and chat. Those who swim with their head about a metre out of the water, so as to preserve their perfect hairdo, are to be found here too, as are those who swim alongside each other, very very slowly, talking all the way and blocking anyone else in all directions.

The other third of the pool is for people who want to swim lengths: and that’s where I went today, with my mother. She loves swimming as much as I do, and, at eighty-three next month, can still do a kilometre – the distance I generally swim – with ease. She swims a stylish back crawl, generally, occasionally forgetting to stop when she reaches the end, and her deafness doesn’t help. “Mum - - stop - - STOP!” - - BANG.

Today, though, in amongst the rest of us, a Superwoman had decided to occupy the lengths-swimming part of the pool. Superwoman was at least thirty and was keen to prove that, though getting on in years a bit for a really serious swimmer, she still had what it takes, unlike the rest of us. We were In Her Way and she wanted to demonstrate her superiority.

Up and down she zoomed, with her perfect front crawl and her shoulders the size of the Pennines. If anyone happened to be in front of her she didn’t deviate at all – she just ploughed into them until they got out of the way. An urge to make Loud Comments came over me, of the “Oh, you poor dear, you do seem to have something to prove” kind, but I kept quiet and kept on swimming, being just fast enough to keep out of her white-water way.

It wasn’t the speed I minded: there was a man swimming fast too, but he did a good job of looking where he was going and avoiding everyone else.

Finally Superwoman crashed into my mother at high speed and carried straight on without pause. I was at the opposite end of the pool, and by the time I’d caught up with my mother – who wasn’t hurt, luckily – Superwoman had gone off to get changed.

Just as well, as I was tempted to Say Something. What I would have said was this. And it’s all true.

“You know that lady you just kicked out of the way? Well, she’s my mother and she’s nearly eighty-three. I know she doesn’t look eighty-three when she swims, because she still swims very well, and so you may think she’s fair game for kicking if she happens to impede your progress. But the reason she swims so well is because, in the nineteen-thirties and early nineteen-forties, she was being coached as a possible Olympic swimmer.

Unfortunately, Adolf Hitler put a stop to it all by dropping a very large bomb on the swimming baths in Barrow-in-Furness, where my mother used to swim. In her day, my mother swam better than you. So you can stop looking so damned superior now.”