Monday, April 30, 2007

Beyond Reasonable Excuse

We're just back from a wonderful weekend in the Furness Peninsula in Cumbria.

More of that later - but meanwhile, on the way back we stopped in Kirkby Lonsdale to have a walk and a look at the river.
The River Lune is very deep just there and there are two bridges: here's the view from Devil's Bridge of the other bridge (and I don't know what the other bridge's name is).

On Devil's Bridge there is this rather unusual notice:

Do they have a list of Reasonable Excuses, I wonder?

"I was a bit pissed and wanted to know how deep it was" - no, forget it, mate, that's a fine not exceeding Level 2 on the Standard Scale for you, sonny.

"I leaned over the railing and dropped my glasses and didn't want to lose them" - well, a teensy bit Reasonable, but probably not Reasonable Enough.

I think these notices should be clearer and less couched in councilspeak.




Thursday, April 26, 2007

Simulated Patient

My mother noticed me peering at the calendar this morning.

"What are you doing?" she asked.

"I'm trying to work out when my baby was born. She's about six weeks old. - Ah! good. St Patrick's day, March 17th, that'll be easy to remember. I think I'll call her Siobhan. My mother can be Irish, I think. My other daughter's twelve. She's called Michelle, after her father who was called Mike."

Anyone who didn't know the context of this could well have found it rather strange. In fact I was trying to create a credible character for some medical roleplay I was doing as a Simulated Patient.

Simulated Patients are actors, frequently, or trained non-actors, sometimes, who play the role of patients to help with the training or assessment of doctors, nurses, midwives, health visitors and other medical professionals.

If you've never heard of this before you'll think it sounds very odd. But take it from me, it's very interesting work, and the learners find it very useful. I've been doing it pretty regularly for - er - twenty-two years.

I'll tell you more about it when I'm not as tired as I am tonight - it's been a really busy week and tomorrow I'm off to the Lake District for the weekend to see lovely Amy, who was a close friend of my mother's at school and obligingly married one of her favourite cousins, thus welding her to our family for all time, and a very good thing too.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Patron Saint of Travellers

Ian’s an actor and I was working with him today. In the coffee break he told this story.

During the Second World War in 1940, 330,000 men were trapped, by the advancing German army, on the beaches at Dunkirk in France. Large ships could not get near to Dunkirk’s shallow beaches to rescue the men and it’s one of the best known stories of the war that eight hundred small boats crossed the English Channel to pick up the men from the beach and take them to bigger boats further off shore.

One of the men on the beach was Ian’s grandfather. As small boats were landing to pick up the men, he climbed into one of them, which was about to set off out to sea. Then he suddenly noticed that his medallion of St Christopher, which he always wore round his neck, had fallen off on the beach.

Convinced that he’d never survive the journey back without it, on an impulse he told the men on the boat to go without him, and climbed back onto the beach. The boat set off.

Back on the beach amongst the gunfire, it took him a while to find the medallion, but eventually - and rather to his surprise - he did. He turned round and looked out to sea. A shell had landed on the boat he had been in: it had been blown to pieces. Everyone on board was killed.

Ian’s grandad was left on the beach, holding his St Christopher’s medallion.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Walking to Work

My usual walk to work consists of coming down the stairs, turning right and then first left into the office.
But from time to time, working with medical students, I travel all over Yorkshire and very occasionally further afield.
Today I was working all day at St James's Hospital, which is about three miles from where I live. It was a long day with a fairly early start - I had to be there by twenty past eight this morning.
So, how to get there? Drive? The parking there is really difficult. Bus? - - Well, it would be a bus and then a walk, or two buses and I couldn't be bothered. Taxi? - - Well, possibly, but after a bit of thought I decided to walk, because I knew I was going to sit around all day in air-conditioned rooms.
Like a fool I told my mother this. She was immediately terrified. Firstly it would involve walking through the woods, where I would undoubtedly be murdered by a Lone Axeman, and then it would involve walking through Harehills, which is a densely-populated part of Leeds where there was in fact a fatal shooting just a few days ago.
So I told her I would get a taxi - the technical term for this is a Lie - and then set off at about quarter past seven to walk, because there's something in me that clings to the belief that Leeds is a rather large, safe village.
And, although it was drizzling a bit, the woods were beautiful.

Harehills was rather less beautiful, but I still enjoyed the walk.

The streets were very empty of people - I don't know if this was because of the shooting or - probably more likely - because it was quite early in the morning.

I arrived a trifle damp from the rain, and rather warm and red-faced, but the walk did make me feel better for the rest of the air-conditioned day.

If I had come to any harm on the way, no doubt some people would have said how stupid I was to do it. But I don't want to live like that. And I know I've been fortunate in that I've never had any serious trouble in Leeds. I did get flashed at once or twice when I was a student, but I have to say I never felt seriously threatened - perhaps I was naive, but my attitude was more "Ooh - - so what?"

Not sure if I'm right, or if I'm just as green as the new leaves on the trees.

Monday, April 23, 2007

In Very Tasteful Florals

I expect that, if you live in England, you are as excited as I am about the forthcoming local elections. Which is really not very excited at all, in fact you've probably already left this blog and gone off to read something else.

Nevertheless, I found it strangely gratifying to have a leaflet come through the door about the Conservative Party Candidate, with a picture that looks exactly as you'd expect her to look:

They're quite good at that, are the Conservatives in this ward: there's the lady above, and then there's the One in the Suit, and then there's the Blond Floppy-Haired Public-Schooly One. I once had a bit of a barney with Blond Floppy-Hair in the street, about Mrs Thatcher. He was saying how magnificent she was and I was saying - with as much drama as I could muster, which was plenty - "Mrs Thatcher Stole My Youth!"

He continued his wasn't-she-wonderful theme and I said "Ah, poor thing, you're too young to remember what it was like, still I expect you'll grow out of it when you get a bit older" and other annoying things in as patronising a manner as I could. Which was Very Very Patronising Indeed.

Mind you, Labour politicians who think they're Cool are just as bad, because they never, never are. At least you know where you are with the Tories. Somehow self-serving politicians who say they're Labour men-of-the-people annoy me even more.

I was brought up always, always to vote, and I almost always do. But I can't blame anyone who doesn't: that old slogan "Don't Vote - it Only Encourages Them" seems to ring more true with every passing year.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

No - - No - - NOT

Watching television a while back, Emily saw a large bug with what seemed to be far more than a necessary number of legs. She didn't like it.

"Oh no. No. NOT!" she cried. She doesn't like small creatures with too many legs. She doesn't like the crickets that the geckos eat.

She didn't like this very large beetle that we came across in France:

And she didn't like this one either.

I, on the other hand, do like them, I find them interesting. I don't know what these particular ones are, except HUGE. I think the top one might be a stag beetle.

Emily's particular dislike is reserved for moths and the Communist feels the same. "They flutter at you," is their criticism, said in tones of deep revulsion. Butterflies don't bother them, so I think it must be the fluttering frequency that causes the problem, and perhaps the fact that most moths are active at night when you can't see quite what they are.

The only things I don't like amongst all these creepy crawlies are, firstly, the ones that are actually dangerous, and secondly, the ones that bite or sting. And I'm not too keen on those big squashy slugs, especially the black ones with orange round them, but that's mostly because I hate treading on them in the dark and the noise they make when I do. It's worse for them than for me, though, I accept that.

And "a no no NOT" is a good fast classification for all small things that might make you go "eeuurgh."

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Drawing Lesson

Idly turning the television on this morning to find a good programme to do the ironing to, I came across Saturday-morning children’s television, and a man giving a drawing lesson. He was rather over-enthusiastic in the way most children’s presenters feel they have to be, but what he said was interesting.

If you get a water-based felt tip pen, he said, and a paintbrush, and a glass of water, you can draw a ball, rather than just a circle. Firstly, you draw a circle like this, using the felt tip pen. Now, if you imagine the light coming from the top right-hand corner of the paper, the bottom left-hand side of the ball will be in darkness, won’t it? So if you get the paintbrush, and dip it in the water, and paint over the felt-tip pen line with the wet brush, it will smudge the ink and put shading on that side of the circle. And look! Because it has shading, the circle now looks like a ball, rather than just a circle. And now let’s try this cylinder - - and now this dinosaur - -

Well, it wasn’t rocket science, as they say, but I bet that seven-year-olds throughout the land (and many older, too) will have been grabbing their water-based felt tip pens and giving it a try: because many – perhaps most – children like drawing, and he had just taught them a simple technique to make their drawing better. And knowing you can draw better than you did yesterday is very satisfying.

That never happened when I was at school. The art teachers who “taught” me – the inverted commas are because they didn’t, really – believed that Art was Free Expression. All they did was provide us with sugar paper and poster paint and a topic (“The Jungle”, say) and let us get on with it.

Now that would have been considered a strange approach in any other subject (“Here are some numbers. Do what you like with them”) but that’s what they thought Art was, certainly at below-O-level age. And if you were good at other subjects, you were strongly discouraged from doing Art O-level, because it wasn’t really considered a Proper Subject – and actually, they way it was taught in the school I went to, it wasn’t.

Perhaps because of this “Art is Self-Expression” approach, the world – and especially the internet - is full of people who think that is the absolute truth. If they get a bit of paint and splash it about to express their anger, or their love, then that, they reason, is Art.

But it’s not, generally: because they lack the skill and/or the talent to communicate their passion to others. And I don’t think it’s art until you can do that.

Friday, April 20, 2007

When Good Owls Go Bad

A couple of days ago I wrote about my strange dream about a television programme called When Good Owls Go Bad. The title sequence showed an owl flying directly towards the camera.

Today, a friend who lives in Thailand sent me this picture, along with some others, winners of an American photography competition.

I've never seen a photo like this before. Coincidence - - OR SOMETHING ELSE?

Nope, coincidence, if you ask me - it's very easy to go round reading meaning into things when it just isn't there. Fantastic photo though, and exactly what I saw in my dream.

I know someone who believed that owls were a whole classification of animals - she thought there were mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, owls - - When I told her, rather tentatively, that owls are birds, she was genuinely astonished. And, looking at this picture, you can see why.

There is something mysteriously appealing about owls, and my favourite owl is the barn owl with its silent flight across the fields. It always gives me a thrill of spooky pleasure.

How to Learn English If You Are French

In a French bookshop I came across a text book for primary-school children which was supposed to teach them English.

It thought that the following “traditional English rhyme” was what they needed to get a firm grasp on the English language.

Spring is showery, flowery, bowery
Summer is hoppy, croppy, poppy
Autumn is slippy, drippy, nippy
Winter is breezy, sneezy, freezy

Traditional English rhyme eh? Anyone ever heard it before? Thought not. Come on, they just made it up. Even English children would have problems with some of these: what does “bowery” mean? Appertaining to bowers, methinks, and most necessary for all visitors to Britain to know.

What does “hoppy” mean in this context? Nothing to do with jumping things such as frogs (oh yes, ha ha) but more to do with the hops which are used in the production of alcoholic beverages, I think.

“Croppy” - - well, producing lots of crops I suppose.

and “poppy” is just confusing in this context

The whole of Great Britain will be full of French children on school trips saying “Zee countryside eez vairy croppy zees summer and eet eez vairy poppy too.”

And full of British children saying “Yerwha’? Am I bovvered? Piss off, you Frog moron.”

Britain is pretty shitty. Pity.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Monkey and the Owl

I often see things that aren't there, as I have mentioned before. Usually buildings that have been knocked down. I don't see them for long, but as I round the corner where the building used to be, I have a clear vision of it, just for a couple of seconds, before I realise it's gone. The vision's like a photograph - every detail's there.

Even so, it was a bit of a shock to come out of the bathroom late at night and to see a small black monkey sitting on the landing, looking at me.

It took an eternity - well, several seconds, but it felt like an eternity - to tell myself that there could not be a monkey on the landing: it had to be something else: what could it be? Eventually it turned into a pile of black socks, with a blue one just showing in the middle which had formed the monkey's eye. Why my mind formed this pile into a monkey I know not.

On a slightly similar theme - that of what was my mind thinking of? - I dreamed last night that I was watching television, and the programme, whatever it was, finished, and the next thing on Channel 5, which was the channel I happened to be watching, was one of those trashy, overdone, shock-seeking documentaries.

It was called When Good Owls Go Bad and the title sequence involved an owl sitting quietly on a branch and then flying ferociously towards the camera, glaring with an evil glare and hooting spookily. At which point I turned the television off, and woke up.

Now, I know there are programmes with somewhat similar titles to that one, but I have never watched them and I really don't know where I got it from. Inside our heads is a strange place.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Concrete Jungle

Here, in the Spring sunshine this morning, are what look like two photos joined together.

The bottom half is typical Yorkshire moorland - heather, grass, bilberries.

The top half is the hideous concrete hideousness of much of the University of Leeds.

Just to the right of the photo is what used to be the English department where I spent three years contemplating the hideous concrete hideousness of the buildings, when I should have been contemplating the glories of English Literature. One day there was a fire and we all escaped by climbing out of the windows on the ground floor - what a shame that we called the fire brigade and didn't just leave it all to burn.

When I was there the bit of moorland scenery hadn't been planted - it was all concrete paving stones. Someone, clearly thinking this area - I think it was known as the Maths Court - was really not terribly aesthetically pleasing, planted it with the bit of moorland some years ago.

Nice try: good intentions: but anything less than total demolition is not going to make this area anything less than vile.

It wasn't until I left the university that I realised how important the look of a place is to me: I felt miserable whenever I looked at these buildings. And I can't be the only one. When I'm In Charge, I'm knocking 'em down and having them rebuilt in either stone or brick.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

How to Launch a Lifeboat

I like instructions, especially rather obscure ones, and here are some from the Norman Spirit, which sails from Portsmouth to Le Havre and back again.














I hope that they practise a bit from time to time otherwise I can see that following these instructions in a Force 8 gale with the ship tipping over to port (oh yes, I know these nautical terms, I've been on canals, you know) might be a bit tricky.

"Oy, we've got to slacken off the bowsing tackles next."



"Er - - okay. I think."

"And now you've got to release the outboard ends."


Though, as a matter of fact, since it's a French company and all the crew seemed to be French it would probably be more along the lines of,

"Qu'est-ce que c'est le bowsing tackle?"

"Je ne sais pas. Desole."

Fortunately we had calm seas and were able to study the lifeboat instructions at leisure whilst watching a distant ship sail into a very picturesque sunset.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Geography Lessons

Amongst the junk I found South Africa and the Congo, which was from the Lands and Peoples series and was one of the geography books used when I was at primary school.

Very enlightening it is, too: not so much about Africa, but about the English view of the world in 1939, which is when it was written (nb I feel I must point out that 1939 is a long time before I was at primary school).

Here it is on the subject of Pygmies (more often known now as the Babongo people):

When Stanley, who had no idea of their existence, saw one of these dwarfs for the first time, he believed that the ugly wretch with its yellow skin and thin beard was a cripple of some sort. At first the dwarf was frightened, but when offered a gift, he became quite friendly. Soon more and more dwarfs appeared and the surprised explorer realised that what he had believed to be a cripple was a normal man among his fellows. All these people were very small and ugly, with flat noses.

And what of Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was then called?

The natives are now on good terms with the white inhabitants. - - Unfortunately, some Negroes believe that everything that comes from Europe must necessarily be beautiful and build their huts of discarded petrol tanks and rusty tins. Of course these huts look dirty and ugly and so do their inhabitants, who sometimes think it very smart to wear an old dress coat over their bare skin or a top hat along with a swimming suit.

Oh yes, there are different ways of looking at things, all right. At least, over the past seventy years or so, some things have changed for the better.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Return of the Smock

I had a few of them in the early nineteen-seventies. One was brown, a kind of synthetic, nylon-type material. It had a square neckline with yellow piping round it and I loved it dearly. I used to wear it with a variety of long skirts; and I still like long skirts.

I'm writing of smocks, of course. Worn for centuries only by farm labourers leaning over gates chewing stalks of barley, in the early seventies they became High Fashion. The other one I particularly remember was made of cheesecloth, which was a material I particularly loved - I felt like a free child of the outdoors. Cheesecloth smock, embroidered flared jeans, oh yes.

And suddenly, after a well-deserved break, the smocks are back. In all the shops, there they are, in a variety of colours including a lot of orange-and-brown prints very reminiscent of the late sixties and early seventies.

But I shan't be going for the smock look this time round. For age has taught me a terrible truth. They make you look pregnant. And if you're too old to be pregnant they make you look both mutton-dressed-as-lamb and, er, fat.

And what's more, I forecast that by the end of the summer everyone will have realised this. So smocks will go completely, totally out of fashion for the next thirty years or so. If you buy them now you won't be able to wear them again until 2037. Still, I expect they'll provide plenty of entertaining photos for the very enjoyable Go Fug Yourself website.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Feng Shui

The caravan has stood outside for years. In the 1980s and maybe even the early nineties my parents went on holiday in it. But as the years went on, its tyres have rotted and now it cannot be moved.

Since it is outside the window of the office where I work from home, and since it’s rather an eyesore, I have been plotting its departure for years, but never got quite as far as paying someone to bring a great big vehicle and take it away.

So when a man knocked on our door a couple of nights ago and asked if he could have it, because he wants to restore it to its former glory, we tried not to appear too eager, but probably did.

The problem is, though, that whenever a home has been sought for the kind of junk that needs to be kept dry but you can’t quite bring yourself to chuck away, “Let’s put it in the caravan,” has been the solution.

And today was the Day of Reckoning.

The only answer was to clear the cellar to put some of the caravan junk in the cellar until it can be further sorted. Meanwhile, the lowest class of junk, the Cellar Junk, is making its way onto the path to await the arrival of a skip.

Nobody except me can bear it. Stephen can’t bear throwing things away anyway and neither can Emily, who luckily is away this weekend with Gareth. The Communist is pictured here surveying the heap of junk.

Then my mother came out too and their Keep-it Chorus began. “But surely this piece of wood might be useful? Can’t this old heater be made to work? If you don’t want this newspaper holder, I’ll have it. I’m sure I can get the mould off this pink bag.”

And this, good people, is why this house is so chock full of junk that even the three or four large skips I have hired since we moved in and the dozens of trips to the charity shop have made very little dent in it. “Travel through life with only a rucksack” the saying goes. Will someone please say that to my family? Though I’m not going to throw away my old school books, obviously. Or the paintings Emily did when she was little. And hey, look, my notes from university. And these books look interesting – hey, South Africa and the Congo, I remember that, I’ll just keep that one. And this one. And what’s in this box?

Friday, April 13, 2007

That'll Teach Her a Lesson

Kayleigh Baker, of Hurworth School near Darlington, has been banned from school trips, from the netball team (no, I have to say that wouldn’t bother me either, but each to his own) and from her end-of-year prom. What can this troublemaking yob have done to deserve such punishment?

Well, she’s had outstanding reports, masses of Grade As, a perfect attendance record and “impeccable behaviour and a totally focused attitude.”

But, with the backing of her parents, she’s decided not to go to the twice-weekly, hour-long after school GCSE revision classes. Her parents reckon that she works very hard anyway and could do with a bit of free time.

However, the school’s chief executive, Eamonn Farrar, says,
“We know what’s best for the children and that’s why we make them go to these lessons. In life, if you don’t do something you are asked to, then you can’t expect anything in return. Children who don’t conform to the school rules cannot expect to go to the school prom.”

Oh, yes, there’s a valuable lesson to be learned from his remarks, and I hope Kayleigh’s paying attention to it.

It is this.

In this world there are many small-minded, do-it-by-the-book, rude, jobsworth, one-size-fits-all, unpleasant, uncreative, totally insight-free, short-sighted high-density deeply stupid people.

Eamonn Farrar is one such. He has been presented to Kayleigh as an early example, so that she will know to avoid people like him for the rest of her life.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

We Don't Do This Much

- - But the French do it a lot. Pollarding, that is. It's when you get a tree and chop its top off and then keep on doing it every year and the result - somewhat spooky in the dark before the leaves come in the Spring - looks like this:

Here's the tree in daytime:

And here's the row of them.

What's it for? I've read that coppicing - where the trees are chopped near the ground in the dormant winter period - produces a lot of thick, low growth. Pollarding, however, is good where the ground is needed for grazing and you don't want lots of thick, low growth.

Doesn't quite make sense, though. In France they go round pollarding trees in rows in towns and cities, in city squares and, as here, in the countryside - but this is the edge of the village of Montreal and there are no grazing animals: this is the village green, with great views to the rolling, distant hills.

Whereas in Britain we don't go round pollarding trees much. I think the French do it so we'll know we're in France.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Things the French Really Say

When I was at school, I was taught that the traditional French caricature of the English has all Englishmen in bowler hats and carrying umbrellas, walking through a foggy London while their fat children stuff their faces with sweets.

Well, the bowler hats and umbrellas and fog have mostly gone - - there’s some truth in the rest, I fear.

Of course, my view of the stereotypical Frenchman has him in a check shirt and beret, with a moustache, out in the countryside. And I did indeed see a few men like this during our stay in Burgundy, no doubt planted by the local tourist board “You are to lean on that wall from 9am to 5pm with two hours for lunch”.

But during this holiday I have heard the French say things that I thought they only said in 1960s school text books. I have heard the following:

“Formidable!” (the rolled R in the middle lasts for about ten seconds)

“Zut alors!”

“Mon Dieu! Mon Dieu!”

“Désolé, madame” (roughly translates as “I am desolate”)

Emily has been saying “Désolé” for years, usually in very cheery tones to mean “I haven’t done it and what’s more I can’t be bothered”.

- Emily, have you finished the washing-up?
- Désolé!

But I was rather surprised to hear a real live Frenchman say it, meaning “sorry I can’t help”.

What we did not encounter at all, not even in Paris, was French rudeness, which the English are so prone to going on about. Even the ticket collector on the train was charm itself. Everyone we met has been really friendly. Hurrah for entente cordiale.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Hello Respected One

They arrive with tedious frequency, these email scams from abroad, and I know I've posted one on my blog previously, but here is another most glorious example. I have, of course, sent Mr Yusuf all my bank details and I am anticipating the imminent arrival of my seven million quid.

Hello Respected One,

Compliment of the season to you,how is life with you hope fine.

My name is Dr. Barry Yusuf,the reason for this correspondence is to seek your relationship and partnership on areas of business investment in your country where we can combinely invest/utilize my money on for profitable gains.

The amount involved is Seven Million United States Dollars{US$7,000,000.00} only and I need your advice in time so that I can make necessary arrangements to move/transfer the money to you before my arrival in your country for further discussions and investments.

Tell me about yourself and also send me your full names, telephone and fax numbers for easy communication. Please acknowledge the receipt of this offer and indicate your willingness and readiness to assist me by responding urgently.

As soon as you show your capability and readiness to work with me,I would forward you my contact details and every other information needed for our mutual benefits and where and how the money came about for your convenience.

Thank you for your understanding. I am anticipating your urgent response,this is practically on business level and not any form of joke or insincerity

Yours Sincerely,
Dr. Barry Yusuf


What is it about those big firms of hauliers that send great big lorryloads of stuff all over the place? Are their distinctive names compulsory?

In England we have Eddie Stobart, in his distinctive narrowboat-type colours. I can picture big, butch, bearded Eddie down the pub, Michelle tattooed on his arm, buying a round of drinks, his big truck parked outside.

And of course the other one is the wonderfully-named Prestons of Potto. For a long time I thought it must be Pottos of Preston, but oh no, Potto is a North Yorkshire village, consisting mainly of a big truck depot, apparently. I once dreamed a whole poem about Prestons of Potto.

In France they have Norbert Dentressangle. We passed old Norbert’s trucks everywhere. And sometimes they passed us. Norbert Dentressangle! Fantastic!

Monday, April 09, 2007

Home Births

Catching up on the newspapers since returning to Britain yesterday, I found this article in last week’s Sunday Times: here's the headline and first paragraph:

All women to be guaranteed choice of home birth

All women will be guaranteed the chance to give birth at home with a National Health Service midwife within the next three years, Ivan Lewis, the health minister, will announce this week.

What’s all this about home births? Well, it’s partly a reaction to the kind of hospital birth that so many women have hated. Where the consultant, if you meet him at all, says “Hello, Karen, I’m Mr Jones” just to establish his status, and then talks about you as if you’re not there to a flock of medical students and invites them to examine your vagina. The kind of birth where you have to lie flat on your back. Where’s you’re left alone for hours and hours. Where, when you say the pain is unbearable, they tell you it’s not. Where they yell at you to be a good girl and push, now, or to be a good girl and not to push. Where nobody listens to a word you say, and the baby is called nothing but Baby and you are called nothing but Mum. Where – as happened when I was a child – the older brother or sister is not permitted to visit the hospital at all, for fear of infection, so that, in my case, my mother was taken away from me for a month and I have never forgiven my little brother, whose fault it patently wasn’t.

Who can blame women for not wanting to go through this? But the choice of a home birth as a “right” – well, I’m not happy with that one.

Having the baby at home, in familiar surroundings, with the whole family waiting downstairs until they cheer and open the champagne when the first cry of the new baby is heard - - ah, how lovely.

But what if something goes wrong? What if all’s going fine and then the baby goes into distress, and the ambulance is called and the mother is rushed to hospital but it’s too late and the baby is dead? Or it’s too late and the mother is dead. Or both are dead.

Can they really mean a home birth as a “right” even if you live a hundred miles from the nearest hospital and it’s your first baby? Because lots of women – especially ones with no previous experience of labour – envisage it as a warm, wonderful experience, where there’s a bit of pain, they push a bit and suddenly there’s a delightful, clean, sleeping baby wrapped in a blanket.

The bloody reality of it all comes as a bit of a shock and the women who are the most determined on no pain relief for their birth plan are frequently the ones who scream for an epidural as soon as the real pain sets in.

And who can blame them? Childbirth – especially in those lovely Olden Days when most women gave birth at home – was agony. And most of us don’t have real experience of agony these days. Childbirth frequently resulted in the death of mother, child, or both. Only a couple of generations back, in Victorian times very few marriages lasted over twenty years because the wife would die in childbirth and the husband would marry again.

The “right” to a home birth will either mean that it will only actually happen for low-risk women – third baby, no previous complications – or that everyone will have the “right”, no matter what the risk.

And some babies, and some mothers, will die, when they could have been saved.

Surely it would be far, far better to spend lots and lots of money creating small, friendly hospital maternity units, with fast access to operating theatres and all the equipment which saved my life and Emily’s life – oh yes, I have a personal axe to grind here! But one midwife throughout pregnancy would be good. And a pleasant, well-staffed, private, clean environment, with an extremely low risk of mother or child catching MRSA or other infections, would be good too. And I am trying to do my bit, in the work I do with students, to help to train medical staff to treat pregnant women with kindness and respect – of course, many already do.

But as for home births – well, pregnancy and childbirth is dangerous. I write as someone who lost one baby at six months of pregnancy, had one bad early miscarriage and had an emergency Caesarean section with Emily: and as someone who nearly died myself in all three of my pregnancies. Life’s too precious to add to the risk of losing it just for a “right” of personal choice.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

In the Car

I can’t read in the car. As you may have suspected if you read my previous post, it makes me sick, very, very fast.

But Emily can read in the car, and she does. Lots and lots. By the time we reached France she had read four quite substantial novels plus several “trashy magazines” as she calls them. She reads very fast but with excellent recall.

She reads a lot when we’re actually there, too. Every time we go on holiday I do my best to buy or borrow enough books for Emily: but there is no such thing as enough and she always runs out. Then she starts on everyone else’s. Where is that book I was so enjoying that I left by my bedside? Oh, look, gone. And where is it? Do I need to ask? Just like being at home, really.

Of course I don’t really mind at all, because what if I had a daughter who didn’t like reading? Aaaaargh! As soon as she’s read all her books, all everyone else’s books and every printed word in the place, that’s when car journeys get tricky, so she and Gareth play Animal, Vegetable or Mineral, or Twenty Questions as you might call it, or Four Hundred and Eighty-Two Questions as happens frequently in Gareth and Emily’s version.

“Play the game”, says Emily, or “I’ve got something” and off they go, that’s it for the next fifty miles or so. The subjects range from the very simple to the somewhat obscure: “Of course you should be able to guess Caedmon’s Cross in Whitby!” and “Which have more people on the planet heard of, the constellation of Orion or Brad and Angelina’s baby?”

The thing is, Emily mustn’t be allowed to get bored, because when she gets bored she starts singing A Million Green Bottles. Remember Ten Green Bottles? You start off with ten green bottles hanging on the wall, and then if one green bottle should accidentally fall there’ll be nine green bottles hanging on the wall. Nine green bottles, hanging on the wall, and if one green bottle should accidentally fall, there’ll be - -

Now imagine it starting at a million. You can see why we take lots of books.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Paris Encore Une Fois

It was quite exciting standing at Montbard station in the pitch dark, waiting for the quarter to seven morning train to Paris. To allow plenty of time, I got up at four-fifteen, which is seriously early but permitted everyone else to have showers after me, and we set off to drive to Montbard at quarter to six.

Paris was gloriously sunny but very cold when we arrived. There was already quite a big queue for the Musee d’Orsay but it moved quickly, which was just as well as Emily’s hands had turned a perfect blue and Gareth assured me cheerily that my cheeks were actually purple.

The Musee d’Orsay is a huge art gallery with several floors – the artists, in general, get more famous as you go higher, with a particularly good collection of the Impressionists. The only thing that I didn’t like about the whole place were the people who persisted in taking photos of the paintings, so I kept feeling, as I was standing trying to look at a painting, that I was getting in someone’s way.

Okay, I can kind of understand wanting to have one’s photo taken next to a Van Gogh or whatever (though only kind of – I’m not sure what kind of talent it demonstrates other than I Was There) but if you want a copy of a painting, why not buy a print?

I particularly loved the Degas pastels of dancers – the more so because I’ve never really seen the point of pastels, but these really changed my mind. We could, of course, have done with more time but finally headed off to find lunch in a jolly café.

Then we decided to walk to the Picasso Museum, which proved tricky to find as there were no signposts to it at all, and our map was, it proved, somewhat lacking in detail. We took a couple of wrong turnings but found it eventually – but even the wrong turnings didn’t matter as everything was interesting – I particularly liked this former baker’s, now a hat shop - and the weather was glorious.

We passed lots and lots of shops selling handbags, and many selling very, very expensive clothes, such as a striped cotton T-shirt for 245 euros. Emily was, as it happened, looking fantastic in a similar one which cost eight quid.

But finally we reached the Picasso museum, and stayed there until it closed and we had to go for our train. A really interesting museum which shows how his work developed from the more conventional painting style of his early works. There were, of course, many paintings which I’d never seen before and my favourite was “Owl in an Interior” – a rather melancholy and haunting painting.

We walked back to the Gare de Lyon (passing LOTS of signposts to the Picasso museum on the way, grrrrr), just in time for the train back to Montbard – we got back to Montreal at about ten o’clock.

So a long day, but well worth it. For me to give up a day in the Burgundy countryside it had to be good, and it was. Who knows, perhaps eventually I’ll find out why everyone keeps going on about Barcelona.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Ancient History

There’s lots of ancient history around here in rural France, from the prehistoric to the Roman. I discovered my very own piece of it lurking on the wall in our friend Graham’s house in Burgundy. Here it is:

Graham worked as a radio presenter and producer before taking early retirement and moving out to Burgundy. But in the mid-seventies – 1975 or possibly 1976 – he belonged to Swarthmore Studio Group, an amateur drama workshop group founded by our friend -still our friend of course - David Robertson and which then occupied much of my free time. And although none of the original people is involved, the group still meets once a week.

And in 1975 – or possibly 1976 – the group put on these two Victorian melodramas – Graham played the Beast in Beauty and the Beast and William in Black Eye’d Susan, I remember. My parents will have been involved in some capacity too, and so will I – probably stage-managing because that was what I enjoyed most.

Strange to find a poster that I haven’t seen for thirty years, here in France, and for it to look so immediately familiar.

While we’re here, my brain seems to be trying to make sense of my own ancient history. I’m having lovely times during the days – Paris was wonderful, more about that soon - but terrible dreams at night. Still, they tell you what you’re worrying about, which in my case seems to be just about everything.

Last night, I had been forced through financial necessity to go back to full-time teaching at the worst school in Leeds. Even that was preferable to the death and destruction that was happening to my family and friends on previous nights. There’s something about holidays that worries me, and always has done.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Of Guide Books and Faith

We’re staying in the hilltop village of Montréal, in Burgundy, France. The nearest place of any size at all is Avallon: the nearest place that most people have heard of is Dijon, but that’s quite some distance away.

It’s a beautiful region, a bit short on theme parks (hurrah!) but long on scenery and history. It’s easier to read the guide books in French, generally, with a dictionary to hand, as the English translations tend to confuse rather than enlighten.

Here’s the castle at Thizy:

“Trevilliacum, Monregallis, Tisiacum, Annotum, our valleys do they resound again noise of the sabots of the funeral horse of the queen Brunehaut? To 12th century the abbots of Moutiers-St-John, come on their earths of Thizy to construct this imposing strong castle in the rock of Thizy.”

But actually, it doesn’t seem to much matter where you go – there’s something interesting in every direction.

Today we went to Vézelay, which is a World Heritage site and place of pilgrimage since the Middle Ages. Here's the main street:

A beautiful village on a steeply sloping hill with the huge twelfth-century church of Sainte-Madeleine at the top.

All round the church are statues of saints and in front of each one is a printed notice, addressing the saint. What interested me was their simplicity. In very straightforward French, and always addressing the saint in the intimate “tu” rather than the formal “vous” they explained what the saint had done and asked for his help. This is a fictionalised version but they were along these lines:

Saint Anthony, you were really helpful to poor people when you were alive and did a very good job looking after them so I hope that you’ll be willing to help us now. Pray for us.

I found the simplicity of these notices rather touching. I have not, of course, been brought up in any religion so I am rather torn between three thoughts:

The first one is hey, look at the magnificence of this church. If the Church was so bothered about the poor why didn’t it spend the money on helping them rather than building a posh building and leaving the actual helping to God?

The second one is, wouldn’t it be great to have a simple faith like this? “Prie pour nous” and to be sure that the saint would put in a good word for you with God: “Excuse me, God, but Mme Bertillon is having a tough time recently, could you lend a hand please?”

And the third one is, that having a belief in God and in the Afterlife must, in some ways, make one’s life so much easier.

Tomorrow (Wednesday) we’re off to Paris again – the train’s at quarter to seven, from Montbard, thirty miles away – so it’ll be an early start, but I hope we enjoy it as much as we did last year. Meanwhile, Emily’s reading (she read four novels just on the journey to France), Stephen’s sleeping after doing all the driving, Gareth is mending one of the villager’s computers and I’m going to make some tea now.

Monday, April 02, 2007

A Life on the Ocean Wave

The ferry operating from Portsmouth to Le Havre is called LD Lines, and our ship, Norman Spirit, was very clean and pleasant and not too big.

Last year we had reclining seats, which nobody in the world has ever managed to sleep in, but this year I think we booked earlier and managed to get “sleeper seats” which are much better as they go completely flat and rather like a narrow single bed. Particularly good if, like me, you are prone to seasickness.

The sea was beautifully flat and I thought well, I’m going to lie down, and the sea’s calm, so I won’t bother with an anti-seasickness tablet.

Only slight drawback was a baby which had made its way out of the womb and almost immediately onto the ferry, and wasn’t much enjoying it so yelled rather a lot. But after a while everything quietened down and I went to sleep.

I woke a few hours later, rather confused as to what time it was and whether that, whatever it was, was in French time or British time. But since I was awake, I thought I’d have a shower before everyone else woke up.

Now it wasn’t what you might call rough, but I had forgotten that I don’t need rough to feel seasick. In fact I only need Not Completely Motionless. We were now in the middle of the Channel and the sea was slightly less flat than it had been in Portsmouth harbour. And there were, of course, no windows in the shower, so I couldn’t keep an eye on the horizon which is the only thing that generally stops me feeling sick and within about two minutes I realised that this whole shower idea had not been a good one. I finished my shower but by now I felt so ill I couldn’t get dressed.

After a melodramatic bout of groaning, and convinced that death was imminent, I managed to put on a T-shirt and trousers and ran into the toilets just in time.

I spent the rest of the night alternately lying down, moaning quietly and bravely in a suitably Victorian-heroine manner, and getting dressed, one garment at a time, underneath my blanket, while passers-by stared at me, as at a lunatic. Of course nobody else was seasick.

Why I never remember this fact I don’t know. I love ships: they don’t love me.

But hey, just a few hours later, when we had driven through lovely French scenery and stopped in French service-stations and eaten steak haché and frites and peed in those squat-down French toilets and arrived at a beautiful French mediaeval village in the French sunshine, I had forgotten it all.

“It’s just like being in France” said Emily. And it is.