Friday, February 29, 2008

To Barrow Again

Today is Robert's funeral and I'll be driving up to Barrow-in-Furness this morning with my mother.

The last funeral that I went to in Barrow was Nancy's.

She was a warm, large, lovely woman, the mother of Dorothy who made Emily and Gareth's wedding cake.

She died age 86 so although it was very sad, it wasn't a tragedy and the family had a big, wonderful party to celebrate her life. It was great to see people whom I hadn't seen for years, especially those who'd grown up since I last saw them. ("Hey! I'll always remember your wedding - do you remember that thing they did with the melon?")

Robert's death, at forty-seven, with a wife, two daughters - the younger age fifteen - and a toddler granddaughter - is a tragedy. But I expect we'll have the party in celebration of his life anyway.

It will be great to see everyone - especially since, of course, they couldn't come to Emily and Gareth's wedding because of Robert's illness.

But I'm dreading the funeral itself.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


Five to one this morning and what else would I be doing but feeding the three geckos? They are leopard geckos, very tame and very cute, and I have trained them to take waxworms from my fingers, and if you think this is an odd thing to be doing at that time of night then of course you're entitled to your opinion, but it's normal for me.

There was a small but strange noise. I couldn't work out what it was so rushed round the upstairs rooms for a few seconds looking for burglars, but luckily finding none.

It happened again - slightly louder this time. It made me feel uneasy. I went into the bathroom in case it came from there - a dragon crawling out of the toilet, or something - and what I found was that Gareth's razor had fallen into the sink.

I still didn't twig, but then it happened again, louder, scarier. I went (oh all right, ran, like a Very Scared Thing) into the bedroom and there was Stephen getting out of bed, looking very sleepy and confused.

Now Stephen sleeps like a man in a coma. One time in a ferocious storm a tree was struck by lightning and crashed to the ground outside the window where he continued blissfully sleeping.

So now I knew that something very odd had happened. The combination of Stephen waking up and the feeling of uneasiness led me to go - - aha! Earthquake!

And so it proved. I remember experiencing two previous earthquakes, and they both gave me this strange feeling of uneasiness.

When I checked it out this morning it turned out to be 5.3 on the Richter Scale - the biggest in Britain since 1984 but, okay, not that big.

But when I looked for my slippers, which I had placed beside the bed last night before starting my gecko-feeding exploits, they were now under the bed and squashed - it's the type with drawers underneath and the earthquake had raised it in the air, moved it and dropped it on my slippers!

I rather like unusual natural phenomena, such as violent storms, as long as I'm safely inside. But even a minor earthquake like this feels so strange - I can't imagine what it must be like to be involved in a major one.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

In Manchester

I was working in Manchester today. It has a very different feel from Leeds: it all seems much bigger. To me it seems more like London. If you like the "buzz" of cities it has plenty - unfortunately I don't like it, really, I find all that big-cityness a bit intimidating:

This is Oxford Road, near the Palace Theatre. There was lots of traffic: I just happened to seize the photo-opportunity in the half a second when there wasn't much.

I like the hidden, Victorian bits of the city best:

It's all rather gentrified in lots of places now, of course, like Leeds - and like Cardiff. I was working with someone who'd visited Cardiff recently and told her that I used to live in Splott, which was then one of its least glamorous areas with rows and rows of Victorian stone terraces.

Of course Splott has now become Cardiff Bay and is all marinas and trendy cafes now.
"It's so posh that they pronounce it Spleau these days" she said, joking.

The building where I was working was the Staff House Conference Centre at Manchester University. It was not new, nor terribly old - but it did have a rather good spirally staircase which I liked:

Unusually for those kind of places, it had quite an old-fashioned, friendly feel to it.

Even the usual long corridor was less soulless than most, because they'd tried to brighten it up with plants:

I see a lot of those kind of corridors, whilst I'm waiting to be called into the room to do my roleplays. I could do my first round in Mastermind on "Decor in Hospital Corridors of the North of England."

It was an interesting and enjoyable day right until the moment when the 16.07 train to Middlesbrough, which was taking me back to Leeds, from Platform Four at Oxford Road Station, disappeared.

Firstly the sign told me it was on time - it told me this for a good ten minutes after it clearly wasn't on time, in fact right until it was about ten minutes not on time at all.

Then it disappeared from the sign completely and was replaced by some other train. A little ripple of grumblings wandered round the assembled passengers, who took it with remarkable equanimity, being British an' all.

Finally, and falteringly, it crept back again, two trains later, telling me it was now 33 minutes late. I don't often travel by train, but when I do, this kind of thing seems to happen to me a lot, which leads me to believe that it must happen to everyone else a lot too.

I enjoyed my day in Manchester, and worked with some great people. But I wouldn't like to commute there to work every day. Down the stairs from the bedroom and into the office at home is my usual distance, and that's ideal.

Monday, February 25, 2008

A First Few Wedding Photos

Emily and Gareth's wedding was - and looked - both wonderful and very unusual. We don't have all the photos yet but here are a few great ones so far. If you click on them they become larger.

This one of Emily and Gareth was taken by my cousin, Colin Stone, just as they were signing the register. The marriage took place in the ballroom of Park Hotel, Tenby.

This one was taken by our friend John Coombes, who was our official photographer, just before the ceremony.

Emily's the tallest with Gareth's sister Jo next to her: at the other side the little ones are my brother Michael and his wife Deborah's children, Daisy and Flo: and next to her is Pearl, sister of Luke who's a friend of Emily's from schooldays. The girl on the left with glasses is my cousin Colin and his wife Cath's daughter Helaina, who has been mentioned many times on this blog: she is thirteen but very small as she has Costello Syndrome.

And here, in another of John's photos, are Emily and Gareth with Chris the Best Man - a schoolfriend of Gareth's - and all the bridesmaids again, just after the ceremony. What I love about these two group photos - apart from the rich colours, the very pleasing composition and the general sense of warmth, happiness and occasion - is the individuality of all those present - they don't look like wedding-party clones, do they?

And here's one of Flo, the youngest of the bridesmaids, dancing at the disco afterwards:

A lovely photograph, taken by Helaina Stone.

I'll show you more when we have them. In fact I have to be restrained from buttonholing complete strangers off the street and saying "Would you like to see some wedding photos?"

A perfect day - we are so very grateful to all those who contributed in so many ways. I'm sure you know who you are.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Blurred History

Here's a slightly blurred photo of a children's tea party in 1966, the year that even non-football fans remember as the year that England won the World Cup.

We were staying in a cottage in the Duddon Valley in the Lake District.

The little boy on the left in the blue jumper is my cousin Robert - he's actually the son of my mother's cousin, but the relationship always felt much closer than that. The earnest-looking one with all the hair, wearing the white top, is me, since you ask.

Here's Robert again, on the left - oh yes, that's me in the orange jumper, I grew into those teeth eventually. My mother and baby brother Michael are also in the photo, and we're looking at a black lamb which had wandered into the cottage.

And here is Robert again, wandering across the lawn having appropriated one of my dolls, watched by his father, with the beautiful Lake District mountains in the distance:

Robert - known to some as Bob, to others by his middle name Harry, and to some as H - died today, from cancer, age forty-seven, leaving a wife, two daughters, a little grand-daughter, his mother, his brother and sister-in-law, and a whole extended family who will all miss him.

Including me.

I am so very glad that we saw him a week ago in Barrow-in-Furness, whilst collecting the wedding cake on the way to Emily and Gareth's wedding. He was thin, but very much his usual self personality-wise.

I can't make sense of something like this - in my head it's blurred, like the photograph. But all my memories of him are good ones.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

People Skills and Air Traffic Controllers

I don't generally like big groups of people, but I almost always like small groups - ones, twos, threes or fours and I'm fine. Because I like people. I'm good at reading body language and I'm good at picking up small signals that show how people are feeling.

In fact, one of the reasons I don't like big groups of people is because, I think, that I pick up the feelings from the others who don't like big groups of people, and those feelings make me uncomfortable.

Okay, in the next paragraph I'm going to tell you about the work I do to help to assess or train doctors or other medical professionals. It will seem as though I'm blowing my own trumpet a bit but please bear with me: there's a reason for it.

I know, from the reactions I get to the medical roleplay I do, and from the fact that I get offered such a lot of work doing it, that I'm good at doing it in reverse - I seem to know how to replicate the speech, the body language and eye contact - or lack of it - that shows how the patient whom I'm playing is feeling. The other day I was playing a wife who was the victim of domestic violence from her husband: the people leading the session had extensive experience of working with such women and said that my portrayal of her was "frighteningly real". How do I do this? I don't know. I just think myself into it.

What I'm not, though, is technical in any way at all. The few bits of technical knowledge that I have, I've picked up from sheer necessity. I'm not technical. I do words. I do people.

My husband Stephen is not like this. He is Top Techie. He works with computers, but really, anything with a plug on it bows to his command. However, as he would be the first to say, he doesn't do people at all: apart from me, Emily, our close family, and my friends, whom he invariably adopts as far as he can.

If you met him you wouldn't know this. He's very friendly and very easy to get on with and has a very good sense of humour. And just as you're thinking this, there he is, gone, upstairs to his computers and whatever he's currently designing or building.

In The Times today there was a questionnaire about Asperger's Syndrome, which is a form of autism. If you could answer "yes" to all the questions then it's very likely that you have it, at least to some extent.

Stephen told me, with some pride, that he had done the questionnaire and answered "yes" to every single question. He was not, however, sure about question number 3, the one about "Do you struggle to maintain friendships?" since he doesn't have any friends of his own to start with, and is perfectly happy that way.

He's quite happy, too, for me to tell you all this - and why wouldn't he be? He's brilliant at his work and he's happy with his very small social life and he enjoys devising and building technical things - his current project is an all-singing all-dancing DVD player and recorder.

Of course, he'd be a brilliant Air Traffic Controller. Apparently very many of those have Asperger's Syndrome because they can do the phenomenal concentration that's required. Me, I'd rapidly lose interest in all those dots on the screen and start asking the others lots of questions about their lives and what makes them tick.

The people who interest me least, as a matter of fact, are the ones with those polished social skills, who excel at small-talk, who like dressing up and showing off, who thrive in a crowd. Hurrah for the others: hurrah for the ones who aren't like that. To me, they're the ones who are worth getting to know.

Friday, February 22, 2008

I Am Elinor Dashwood (Apparently)

I found this quiz on Jennyta's blog - thanks, Jennyta - and, always having been a bit of a Jane Austen fan, I had to do the quiz and this is the result:

I am Elinor Dashwood!

Take the Quiz here!

I am quite happy to be sensible Elinor Dashwood and am just glad I'm not the rather dull Fanny Price or Anne Elliot. Sadly I guessed I was never going to be the exuberant Elizabeth Bennett.

Jane Austen is often classed as a romantic novelist but, though it's true her novels are about young women in love, they are written with tremendous wit, insight and humour, and that's what I like.

Most writers who are classed as romantic novelists produce yards of badly-written Mush, and I hate Mush. Jane Austen is in a class of her own.

Asking for Leek and Potato Soup

I was back in the student cafe this lunchtime: the one where a student memorably ate chips with cheese and gravy - yuck yuck yuck - a couple of weeks ago.

"Please may I have some leek and potato soup?" I asked nicely. I was taught to say this when I was very small. My eleven-plus teacher, the venerable Mr Storey, was very hot on the difference between "may" and "can". Heaven help you if you said "Please can I sharpen my pencil?" You'd get a long lecture on how you probably could, if you were determined to and had the necessary pencil-sharpening skills, but you would need his permission first, and to achieve this permission you would need to ask using the word "may".

So, brought up on this important difference, I have the MAY word ingrained in my soul and would feel really, really naughty if I were ever to say "Please can I have - "

The student next to me had no such scruples.

"Can I get some leek and potato soup, please?"

There was a small whirring sound as Mr Storey spun rapidly in his grave, but the student didn't notice.

I opened my mouth to say something along the lines of "Well, I expect you can, if you're prepared to vault over the counter and pick up a bowl and a ladle," but I didn't.

Then the next student stepped up.

"Can I get a cup of coffee, please?"

Okay, there's something going on here, because this is the third week that I have noticed this "Can I get?" phrase. Student after student using it.

So. Is it wrong, I ask you?

Well, technically, yes, I suppose so. But the language changes all the time and a few hundred years back there'd be people saying stuff like "Verily, 'tis not you, 'tis thou that thou should'st be saying".

To me there's a difference between sloppy speech or writing - which I don't like - and new uses of language, which I find rather interesting. I don't like some uses that creep in because people have heard them wrong - "couldn't of" annoys me instead of "couldn't have" for example.
"She couldn't of bought it because she didn't have enough money" -- no, I hate it!

But "Can I get a cup of coffee?" Hmm.

Where has it come from? The USA, that's where - I've often heard it in television programmes (that's "shows" for any American speakers who may be reading this).

But is it wrong? D'you know what, I don't think it is. The meaning is perfectly clear, and it's not just an English phrase that's being used wrongly.

I think it's a new phrase, in the same way that, once upon a time, "pyjamas" was a new word.

And my version, "Please may I have - - " now sounds very old-fashioned, like something out of a 1950s British film where the word "back" is pronounced "beck". Though I expect I'll keep on saying it: Mr Storey's powers remain supreme from beyond the grave.

In a few years' time the conversation might go like this:

"Can I get some leek and potato soup?"


Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Cake

Look, bear with me, will you? My daughter Emily's just got married to the lovely Gareth and I'm Dead Proud. Eventually I'll stop going on about it but meanwhile I'm going to show you the cake.

My cousin Dorothy made the cake for our wedding in 1980 (yes, I was a child bride, thank you, since you ask) and since it was excellent, it seemed only sensible to ask her to make the cake for Emily and Gareth's wedding.

I reminded her of the excellence of the 1980 cake which was square, three tiers supported by pillars, very traditional and very handsome. "I've learned a bit about cakes since then," she said. She runs her own cake-making business in Barrow-in-Furness, and when Barrow got a new lifeboat station she made a perfect replica of it, in cake, for the Grand Opening.

We told her that the colour scheme for the wedding was red and black and cream. We sent her photos of the clothes that Emily and Gareth would be wearing. Gareth drew her a sketch of how he envisaged the cake.

Here it is, in the dining-room at Park Hotel before the wedding:

And here is a close-up of Emily and Gareth on top of the cake:

There'll be some photos of the Happy Couple soon but I must say the cake figures are spot-on.

The bottom tier was fruit cake. The middle tier was chocolate cake. The top tier was sponge cake.

Fantastic, eh?

"Aren't your relatives lovely?" asked Stephen.

Yes, as a matter of fact, they are.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

On a Cold and Frosty Morning

Today winter returned, and I took some photographs of it. Here's a poem I remember from my teaching days and even though I had to read and discuss it with numerous classes of disinterested teenagers, I still like it: it's called Hard Frost and it's by Andrew Young.

Frost called to water Halt,
And crusted the moist snow with sparkling salt;
Brooks, their own bridges, stop,
And icicles in long stalactites drop.
And tench in water-holes
Lurk under gluey glass like fish in bowls.

In the hard-rutted lane
At every footstep breaks a brittle pane,
And tinkling trees ice-bound,
Changed into weeping willows, sweep the ground;
Dead boughs take root in ponds
And ferns on windows shoot their ghostly fronds.

But vainly the fierce frost
Interns poor fish, ranks trees in an armed host,
Hangs daggers from house-eaves
And on the windows ferny ambush weaves;
In the long war grown warmer
The sun will strike him dead and strip his armour.

Here are some of my frosty photos from this morning:

Plum tree:

Plant pot:

The trees across the road from our house:

But - as in the poem - by lunchtime, Jack Frost had gone completely.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Other Way Round

We take the scenic route to Tenby. One of several possible scenic routes, in fact.

For the last few years we've settled on a route that goes Leeds to Manchester to Bala to Machynlleth to Aberystwyth to Cardigan to Tenby, just bypassing Dolgellau via a little village called Brithdir.

One of my favourite parts of it is going over this mountain pass and seeing this view, with the lake in the distance:

It's hard to judge the scale of it, until you realise that to the right of you there are lots of miniature sheep which appear to be about two inches high, surrounded by miniature trees. Then you understand that perhaps the mountain is bigger than you first thought.

The Dolgellau to Machynlleth part of the route takes you down the left hand side of a kind of circle made of roads. The right hand side of the circle looks much longer, so we'd never tried it.

Silverback suggested (thank you!) that we should try it, because the other way goes over another scenic - and difficult to say - pass, called Bwylch Oerddrws ("Did you mean Bwylch Orders?" asks Google - well, no, I didn't, actually).

It was glorious in the sunshine: though I know it would be glorious in any other weather too.

Again, it was hard to tell the scale of the huge mountains: here are our friend David and my mother looking at the scenery:

The Other Way Round didn't take much longer at all. When we go to Tenby in the summer, we plan to go the Usual Way going and the Other Way coming back. Or perhaps the Other Way going and the Usual Way coming back. Either way, I'm already looking forward to it.

Monday, February 18, 2008


Oh well, I expect that before long I'll go back to ranting about hospital car parks and suchlike. But, meantime, here are some photos of Tenby in February, looking - and being - idyllic.

Tenby from North Cliff:

Goscar Rock, North Beach, evening sunlight:

The beautiful long stretch of golden sand that is South Beach - though all of Tenby's three beaches are golden-sand beaches:

Tenby Harbour:

Isn't it amazing when you've loved a place for over forty years and then your daughter gets married there and the very place itself seems to be doing its best to make it magical?

But - and a brief return to my usual grumbling here - as you know, the Communist is in hospital, so couldn't come to the wedding.

Could I ring him to tell him all about it? No, I could not.

Because the ward he's in is primarily for elderly people, who are presumably deemed unable to work a telephone, there are no phones by the beds and no portable phone. And since he can't move from his bed, that's it, no speaking on the telephone for you, Mr Communist.

So, although I have passed messages on, I haven't been able actually to speak to him since last Tuesday. Remind me, what's the year: 2008, is it?

Tomorrow I'm back to it all. But this evening, although I'm physically in Leeds, I'm going to try to keep my head in idyllic Tenby.

Thanks to all of you who've sent lovely comments about the wedding - they have all been much appreciated.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Night Before and the Morning After

The bride and groom retired to their room. Presumably they were tired after their long and busy day.

A party of the younger guests went down to the beach, where a man whose name I won't tell to protect his anonymity, okay, some Guy or other, ran around naked for some unknown reason.

Chris the Best Man was discovered walking into Tenby at about four o'clock today having just got up: he thought he had probably had a very good evening.

And all today, the glorious weather continued. Here's Tenby's stunning South Beach, with Caldey Island low on the horizon:

And here's Park Hotel, Tenby, South Wales, this afternoon. British weather, eh? Good, isn't it?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Emily and Gareth's Wedding

It's not all over yet - I can still hear the music from the disco in the distance.

It's been as perfect as a wedding could possibly be.

Park Hotel in Tenby has been owned by the same family since our family first came here in 1965: we've been back here every year since, so, as you may imagine, the hotel owners and staff seem like part of our family too.

They pulled out all the stops for us. The ceremony was a delight. Emily and Gareth both looked fantastic - there'll be photos on a future post, of course.

The reception was superbly organised and the food was fantastic. The speeches were excellent - even the Communist, too ill to be there, had made a speech which my brother had recorded and it was great - though it made everyone cry. The other speeches were funny and moving at the same time. Messages from people who couldn't be there were lovely - and some of those were very funny too.

It was so good to see that this hotel, which we've loved for years of course, was making such a great impression on everyone.

But, as the owner of the hotel, Roger Howells, pointed out several times, they can create the ambience, but it's the guests who make the atmosphere: and our guests have done a fantastic job.

Almost everyone there had travelled a long distance, though it was great that Ginny and Russ, who run the superb Silent World aquarium in Tenby, were able to come.

It was lovely to see Emily and Gareth looking so happy.

So many thanks to everyone involved, from me, Mother of the Bride: and no, I didn't wear a hat. When I post some photos soon you will see that it most certainly doesn't look traditional - but, as one of the guests remarked, it was "the loveliest wedding I've ever been to." It was glorious.

Friday, February 15, 2008


Momentous occasions always feel a bit dreamlike to me.

The astonishing weather that we found in Barrow-in-Furness had a dreamlike quality too. Here's the tiny and beautiful Piel Island, just off Barrow:

Barrow-in-Furness, for goodness' sake, where my earliest - though very happy - memories of beaches were of howling gales and grey skies.

And here we are, in February, flat calm, stunning sunshine. No Photoshop, no nothing. This is just how it was.

In the Olden Days they might have said it was an omen.

Emily and Gareth are getting married tomorrow. I hope the Olden Days were right.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Tenby in the Winter

Since I was eight, and first came to Tenby in the summer, I have wanted to visit Tenby in the winter, just to see what it's like.

It's glorious. After a long drive down from Barrow-in-Furness, where we collected the stunningly beautiful wedding cake (photos in a later post!) we finally arrived here this afternoon.

It feels very strange, and extremely naughty, to be in this hotel, which I have visited about forty-two times in the summer, in the middle of winter.

Though the weather's been wonderful so far, and I hope this will continue until after Emily and Gareth's wedding on Saturday.

It's great to see our lovely friends and relatives arriving and saying "Oh, what a friendly hotel!"

There are a few people who can't be here, and I wish they could be: some will read this, some won't.

Just a quick post today - I will write more tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

On the Way to the Wedding

We have travelled from Leeds to Barrow, a distance of exactly a hundred miles, to collect the cake for Emily and Gareth’s wedding. It has been made by one of my cousins here: she’s a professional cake-maker.

It was a stunningly beautiful journey with a cloudless blue sky. We travelled through the Yorkshire Dales and then along the Coast Road and it was all fantastic: unbelievable, breathtaking. I have seen the sea round here in many different states but I’ve never seen it flat calm and such a bright blue.

I have taken some photos which I hope will show something of how amazing it looked, but at the moment I’m typing this in a Barrow hotel where the wifi is broken and the GPRS signal is very sloooooooooow so I’m not going to attempt anything as ambitious as photographs.

We went to visit another of my cousins, the one who has terminal cancer. His is very thin, because he simply can’t eat.

He has had two courses of chemotherapy.

“I’m supposed to have eight,” he said calmly, “but I won’t get that far. I’m wasting away faster than the chemotherapy can fight the tumour.”

“Oh, you shouldn’t look at it like that,” said his mother.

“Well, you can say that I shouldn’t,” said my cousin mildly, “but it’s the truth.”

And it is the truth.

I am so glad I saw him. Tomorrow, we travel to Tenby – three hundred miles, so I may not be able to post tomorrow. If I don’t, I certainly will on Friday.

No Steamy Sex in This Either, Sorry

So today, in the hideous new multi-storey car park, when the machine ate my pound coin and didn't give me a ticket, I called the supervisor, who was smallish and roundish and clearly a Decent Chap. So I decided to ask him my Question.

"Do you think this is the most confusing car park in Western Europe, or is it merely the most confusing car park in the UK?"

"Western Europe, probably," he said. "I've just helped a woman who's been driving round and round for fifteen minutes. She'd never have got out."

"Could you tell me why the floors are labelled B1 and B2 and L0 and L1 and why the only pay machines are on L0 but there are no signs to tell you whether L0 is up or down and also why you have to drive on the right up the ramps from one floor to the next and why there are no exit signs anywhere?"

"Because it was built by private funding and the NHS Trust had no say in it."

"And do you agree that it's confusing?"

"Oh yes. People are always losing their cars and when they find them they can't get out. They get very upset because they're visiting sick relatives and they're upset anyway."

"Could you give me the name of the person I should complain to?"

"Oh yes. Dave Salter. He's my boss. He's the Traffic Co-ordinator and he's based at Leeds General Infirmary."

Now please pay attention, Dave Salter, if you happen to be reading this. Tomorrow I'm setting off to Barrow-in-Furness to collect a wedding cake and then the next day I'm heading down to Tenby for my daughter's wedding. So I'm a bit preoccupied at the moment.

But I'll be back late on Monday. And then I plan to make your life a living hell until you do something about it.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Rhythm and Rhyme for a So Special Time

In our family, if it's your birthday, the Communist will write you some birthday verses.

His verses are always well-crafted and very entertaining, though they usually include some tortured rhymes.

Verse is a strange thing: I think it's different from poetry.

You can have verse that's very banal, of the birthday-card kind.

Upon this very special day

I hope that things will go your way

It wouldn't be the kind of card I'd choose: and yet if you happen to be very fond of the sender, I find that somehow overrides the dullness of the verse.

Perhaps I've inherited it from the Communist, but I'm quite good at crafting verses, especially ones that fit an existing rhyme-scheme and scansion . That, to me, makes it much easier. Thinking about writing this piece, I thought I'd better write something to illustrate this point: here's the limerick I came up with whilst driving to Leeds University this morning.

There was a young man from the West

Who saw his girl's bra as a test

Through straps, hooks and glue

And the odd nail or two

He got in. Said the girl, "I'm impressed."

Okay, it may not be brilliant, but I find I can do it very easily - - you give me a first line, or a last line, and I'll come up with the rest.

Poetry, on the other hand, is something else altogether.

I think that, in a poem, the sound of the words, the meaning of the words and the rhythm of the words should all come together to "take you there" in the best possible way: to make a whole that's greater than the sum of its parts. I have a personal preference for poems that rhyme and scan, but that's just me.

Here's a good modern poem: it's by Kit Wright and it's called The Sea in The Trees.

When the warm wind was flowing

In the leaves of the tall ash tree

The old man fell asleep in the park

And he dreamed the sound of the sea.

The branches filled and bellowed

The high mainmast swayed

As long sea-miles of the afternoon

His green galleon made -

In the harbour of the shade.

Here's a great classic poem: it's by William Shakespeare, who was better at it than just about anyone else:

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame

Is lust in action, and till action, lust

Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,

Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,

Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight,

Past reason hunted, and no sooner had,

Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait

On purpose laid to make the taker mad.

Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;

Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme,

A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;

Before, a joy proposed, behind, a dream

All this the world well knows, yet none knows well

To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

So why am I thinking about poetry so much at the moment?

I suppose it's because this is such a momentous week in our lives: Emily and Gareth are getting married on Saturday.

I've always written verses: but I think that this deserves a poem. I'd like to have a go at writing one - but, reading a good one - and, even more so, reading a great one - I don't think I'm up to the task.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Not About a Very Steamy Sex Scandal

Yes, sorry, I do apologise, it's really not about a very steamy sex scandal. But I hoped that the words "sex scandal" might tempt you to read on.

"Hospital Cark Park" is not so exciting a title. But don't go away, please, I will try to make it as thrilling as possible. Though I'll fail, doubtless.

At St James's Hospital there used to be two visitors' car parks and they are almost invariably full. So they built a shiny new multi-storey car park.

Then, for some reason that I don't yet understand, they held interviews to find Leeds's Most Stupid Person and gave him (or her, I'm not sexist) the job of labelling the car park.

As you drive in, it says that you can only pay on floor L0.

No indication of where this mysterious floor might be. But as you progress up and down, you come to such notices as this:

Quite apart from my English-teacherly desire to get a big red pen and put a full stop after "you" and a capital letter for at the start of "It", there is no further explanation, except a door next to it. Which was locked.

Then we come to such excitements as this:

So is B2 above or below B1? It's below it, since you ask. Might B stand for Beckett, perhaps? What's the red herring about the Bexley Wing? And where's level 0?

Shall we go up a floor or two? Yes, let's. Now what do we find?

So what's on Level L1 then? And how do we get to the mysterious Level L0 when we want to pay? And how much is it?

Still, there's a lovely view of some of the least pleasant bits of Victorian Leeds from the top:

Interestingly, as you go up and down on the ramps from one floor to the next, you have to drive on the right, not on the left as you do everywhere else in Britain. Whereas this might be all very well for some readers of this blog who are used to such strange things, I think such counter-intuitive planning will simply cause chaos to the good citizens of Leeds. And quite a lot of bumps, too.

But seriously, folks. If you're visiting your ill relative or friend you probably have more important things preoccupying your mind than how to work the sodding car park. Surely such things should be made extra easy at a hospital, not extra difficult.

Could you do a better job? Of course you could. Our cat could. How on earth do they manage to make such a comprehensive cock-up of such a simple thing?

Saturday, February 09, 2008

The End of Winter

It's a glorious early-Spring sunny day today. There were plenty of Spring flowers coming out in Gledhow Woods, though it looks more like March than February:

I'd expect snowdrops in February, certainly. But that daffodil's really too early. I associate daffodils with Easter and even an early Easter won't be for some weeks yet.

Here's a celandine, one of my favourite early flowers. When I was a child celandines were most definitely March, not February.

There are primulas flowering in people's gardens and other flowers everywhere: these were on a wall:

We are witnessing the end of Winter in Britain. Possibly permanently. Now we seem to go from a long autumn to an early Spring. Not having all that snow and cold is initially quite appealing - - unless you live by a river and your house is flooded every few months.

Global warming is definitely a Bad Thing. But on a day like this, walking in the woods amongst sunshine and birdsong, it's hard to think that.

Here's a poem that I like that's about this time of year. It's by Edward Thomas, and was written about a hundred years ago, in the days when we still had Winter.

But These Things Also

But these things also are Spring's
On banks by the roadside the grass
Long-dead that is greyer now
Than all the Winter it was:

The shell of a little snail bleached
In the grass: chip of flint, and mite
Of chalk: and the small birds' dung
In splashes of purest white:

All the white things a man mistakes
For earliest violets:
Who seeks through Winter's ruins
Something to pay Winter's debts,

While the North blows, and starling flocks
By chattering on and on
Keep their spirits up in the mist
And Spring's here, Winter's not gone.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Vile Dinners

Metformin, which is the drug that I take for my diabetes, tends to make me feel slightly queasy. I don't notice it all the time, but it seems to be worse if I'm hungry.

Things on a menu or in a cafe that, in pre-Metformin days, just seemed slightly unappetizing, now make me go EWWWWWWWWWWW NOOOOOOOOOOOO!

And one such was ahead of me in the queue at the university canteen today, in my lunch break between medical roleplays.

Since I'd spent the morning working on such issues as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, there was no way I was going to eat anything unhealthy for lunch. But as I queued to pay for my baked potato, salad and fat-free yogurt plus fresh orange juice, my halo glinting slightly in the fluorescent lights, I noticed what the young woman in front of me was about to eat.

A huge container of chips, for a start. Now I love chips, but the portion was the size of Birmingham.

On top of the chips she had grated cheese.

Now then, you may like this combination, but I most definitely don't. Horrible idea.

But, WORSE - -

On top of the cheese she poured about half a pint of gravy.

I don't like gravy with chips, for a start. Chips should be a thick-cut accompaniment to fish, or thin French fries as an accompaniment to almost anything else, really. Anything else except cheese.

But the idea of chips with gravy with cheese! I ask you, honestly, is this the kind of thing we want going on in our universities?

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Get Well Soon

I'm quite a connoisseur of Yorkshire hospitals, since I've worked in lots of them recently.

One of my least favourite it St Luke's in Bradford, which has all the charm of a Victorian prison:

Some of it now belongs to ITV, who film that cutting-edge medical drama The Royal there.

Where we were working it looked like this:

One of those old, long, Florence Nightingale-type wards - very old-fashioned now. The ward was closed for good and used for teaching. The whole hospital's like being in a time warp and therefore ideal for filming a programme set in the 1960s.

It's gloomy and depressing. Okay, so part of it might be of historical interest, and they should keep a few buildings - there are plenty to choose from - as an Awful Warning. A comet landing on the rest could only create improvements.

Worse, by far, is the totally vile Beckett Wing at St James's Hospital. Worse because it's more modern and therefore gives me a generalised feeling that They Should Have Known Better.

It exudes misery from every brick. Close your eyes when you look at it.

Inside it's all nasty pastels, nasty smells, vitamin-free food and a generalised feeling of desolation and decay.

This is where we keep the old people. Still, the Beckett Wing must give each of them rose-tinted memories of the rest of their life, no matter how bad it's been.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Thank You

I always enjoy getting comments on this blog - they're often witty, perceptive, funny or moving. Sometimes all of those. And, recently, particular thanks to those who've left comments on my post Strange Times.

I often want to write "Thank you" in the comments section - but it was pointed out to me that this makes it look as though the correspondence is over. It doesn't mean that at all - I just want to thank those people who've left comments up to that point.

But I've stopped writing "Thank you" in the comments section for that reason.

So that's why I'm saying it here. If you're wondering whether or not to leave a comment on anything I write, then all I can say is, please do. And thank you to those who have taken the trouble to do so. I know people sometimes think their comments aren't worth it unless they're full of sparkling wit etc - - - but, actually, it's just good to hear from you, and to know that there are people out there who are reading what I write.

Please, if you would like to comment, don't think too much about it - - just leave a comment.

Hard and White

I listen to the radio a lot whilst driving and whenever I hear anything slightly controversial in a discussion I immediately weigh in with my own opinion, shouting it like a loon as I drive along.

"No! You're so WRONG!"

But it took me a while to work out where I stand with regard to putting fluoride in the water.

In America they do it all over the place. In some parts of Britain they've done it for a while. The good thing is that it helps children's teeth to grow strongly, especially in the more deprived areas where the children don't tend to use toothpaste, or even to have their own toothbrush. Top Dentist, who took part in the discussion, said that there are lots of "family toothbrushes" out there. It takes a lot to "gross me out", as Emily would put it, but the idea of a family toothbrush - - ewwwwwwwwww.

The bad thing - or one of the bad things - is that too much fluoride can cause dental fluorosis. An excess of it can in a child cause the adult teeth to come through mottled or even with brown stains. Sometimes children get it from using too much toothpaste and swallowing it rather than spitting it out.

But there are worse medical disasters. Surely, in general, if fluoride in the water helps to cut down tooth decay, then we should go right ahead and do it.

Well - - I don't think it's quite so simple. Things rarely are, are they?

The Government has just spent forty-two million pounds on researching it all. But meanwhile, it's got harder and harder to find an NHS dentist, and hence the adults in many of the less well-off families are totally out of the habit of going to the dentist, and hence they don't take their children either.

One woman who rang in said "Why should the Government spend my taxes on putting fluoride in the water to sort out people who can't be bothered to brush their teeth?" And I can imagine a lot of people thinking that. And also, a lot of people thinking that only a tiny proportion of the drinking water is actually drunk, and yet we'll have to pay to put fluoride in all of it.

But actually, I think it's the principle that I have a problem with. Putting stuff in the drinking water, however well-meant, seems wrong to me. It seems a bit Totalitarian State, and makes me uneasy.

On balance I think the forty-two million could have been better spent on dental health education, and on making dentists cheaper. Or even on toothpaste.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Strange Times

I've had a very busy day today and it seems to be making me thoughtful.

These are strange times for our family with several life-changing events going on at once.

The Communist is still in hospital where they are doing a whole load of tests, some of which - I'm convinced - have already been done by the other hospital, when he was in there. They don't seem to have found any explanation for his anaemia yet, and it's very hard to find out when each test will be done - - "maybe tomorrow" - - And then, when you turn up to visit, he might not be there, he's gone for some test somewhere. It's like being in a strange limbo, waiting for him to go back to the nursing home.

The Communist, of course, still refuses to accept that the nursing home is anything other than short-term. He accepts that the food is good and they look after him well, but whenever he sees me on my own - which is quite often - he sees me as his best hope of escape to his own home.
"I don't mind going to that nursing home for a while, but I'm in my eighty-fifth year and I don't want to spend the rest of my life in a home."

But he needs round-the-clock care: he can't come home: he doesn't seem to realise this and I find it upsetting and very hard to deal with. "Well, Dad, we'll have to see how you get on - - ".

At the same time, my cousin in Barrow, who has terminal cancer, is extremely ill: he is at home and they have stopped all treatment. This means, of course, that our Barrow relatives - some of our Very Favourite Relatives - can't come to Emily and Gareth's wedding, because they can't leave him, of course.

We're going to Barrow on Wednesday next week, collecting the cake from my cake-making-cousin Dorothy on Thursday and then driving down to Tenby. It's a long way. But I should be able to see my cousin who's so ill whilst we're in Barrow: and that will be strange too. It will be the last time I'll see him: if he's well enough to be visited, of course. That's incredibly difficult to get my head round, and I won't know what to say, but I want to do it anyway.

And then, in the middle of all this, Emily and Gareth are going to get married on Saturday, February 16th, and we're all very happy about it, and they seem very happy too.

So, after a day of rather intense medical roleplay, including a scenario about terminal cancer, I suppose it's not surprising that my emotions just don't know what the hell's going on our how I should be feeling.

Strange times.

Monday, February 04, 2008

A Useful Source of Stupid Women

Well, it's under two weeks now until Emily and Gareth get married on February 16, so this week The Wedding is in my thoughts. In fact I even bought a necklace this morning. Real imitation silver with interesting dangly bits. Fifteen quid. Very pretty. It's just about doubled my jewellery collection.

According to an article in The Times today, which caught my eye, "many brides would like their bridesmaids to sign agreements promising not to put on weight or get pregnant before their big day, a survey suggests".

I always love that phrase a survey suggests. It suggests an exhaustive ten-year research project covering most of Western Europe: whereas we know it's probably a quick whip round the office saying "Whaddya think?"

Anyway, the next bit says:

"Almost half of those questioned said that they would sack a bridesmaid who did not abide by the contract."

And where was this important survey carried out?

Amongst the readers of You and Your Wedding magazine, that's where.

Now, I know that lists of names can be an invaluable marketing tool, and it's possible for companies to buy them - - people who like gardening - - people who like holidays in France - - people who like things made out of rubber - - that kind of thing.

If ever a company needs a list of the Most Stupid Women In The Country, I can advise them that they could do worse than seek out the list of readers of You and Your Wedding magazine.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

European City of Something

I went into Leeds City Centre yesterday - the first time on a Saturday for ages. I had little choice as I had to buy something to wear at Emily and Gareth's wedding, which is in under two weeks. I cannot begin to tell you how much I hate shopping for clothes, especially for clothes for important occasions, but anyway, I did it.

The Leeds that I remember from my childhood is very different from Leeds as it portrays itself now.

And before we start, I'm not THAT old, okay?

In those days Leeds was very polluted by smoke and quite often there would be terrible smog - I remember having to go out with a scarf over my face. If you went into the city centre midweek there'd be nobody about - everyone would be working.

There were big department stores - Schofields, for example, and Lewis's, with its posh black and white food hall. But in spite of these there was a generalised "it's grim Up North" feel to it all, and a general feeling of poverty round the corner.

There still is plenty of poverty in Leeds, of course, but you wouldn't be able to tell from looking at the city centre. It's been Gentrified.

It's all glass and gold signs and pedestrian precincts and even the old Victorian arcades have become the Victoria Quarter. Ooh 'eck.

Briggate (click for a virtual tour) is one of the centre's oldest streets and I remember it being full of traffic. Not now, though: it's full of people. Or it was yesterday, anyway.

I passed one shop with a window full of golden clothes and no prices. A closer look showed me it was Harvey Nicholls. I looked inside, but really wouldn't want even to cross the threshold. Even nearby Debenhams had lots of ordinary-looking handbags for about £125.

I don't know why I get so upset by expensive goods such as these. Yes, yes, people have the right to spend their money how they like. But how can a handbag costing £125 be £105 nicer than mine, which cost £20?

The old Leeds was far too "where there's muck there's brass" and took a certain pride in its grimness. I know the new version is an improvement in many ways. But there are things about it that make me uneasy. Too much glitz. Not enough heart.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

A Century of Chinese Whispers

Abraham Blass, who was the Communist's father and my grandfather, was born in Hungary towards the end of the century before last.

He didn't stay there long: his family brought him to England when he was six months old. As an adult he was never called Abraham, though. Rickets as a child had made him bow-legged and his walk was similar to Charlie Chaplin's, so he was always called Charlie.

The Communist knew the name of the little town in Hungary where his father came from, but had never seen it written down. Feyer Jarmot, it was called. Unfortunately, that wasn't how it was written, so the Communist could never find it on a map.

Then they invented t'interclacker and last night, thinking about my grandparents, I decided to have a search for Feyer Jarmot, and it took me about ten minutes to find it (and some, I believe, would have found it quicker still).

Fehergyarmat. Soon I was above it on Google Earth, looking at the little houses and their gardens. Amazing.

When the Communist was a child, his grandfather decided to teach him some Hungarian. With that heavy-handed kind of humour which I've hated all my life, his grandfather taught the Communist something to say to his grandmother, and the Communist remembers it to this day.

Nem setsiktet gyamama was the version he remembers - and indeed said to me this very afternoon.

It means I do not like you, grandma.

What exactly happened when he said to his grandmother it is lost in history, but he remembers the embarrassment of it. Which is interesting, since he used to do exactly the same kind of thing to me when I was a child.

But since they've obligingly invented t'interclacker, I thought I'd have a look for "I do not like you, grandma" in Hungarian and came up with this:

Ez nem tetszik nekem on nagymama.

Okay, it's lost a bit in essence over the seventy-odd years since the Communist learned it and the thirty years or so before that since the Communist's father learned it: but it's really not that far off.

As with Fehergyarmat, the Chinese Whispers have been remarkably accurate down the years.

Friday, February 01, 2008


Shana Salzburg, who was the Communist's mother and my grandmother, was born in Zagare, Lithuania, sometime towards the end of the century before last.

When she moved to Leeds, age fourteen, sometime before the First World War, she became known as Janie. Shana was considered far too "foreign" for English people to be able to pronounce.

She had several brothers and sisters and one sister, Pesha (and I'm not sure how you spell it - I've never seen it written down) also left Zagare, but moved to South Africa, and was ever after called Pauline. She had a daughter who was called Ennie.

Ennie was, in truth, only what my grandmother called her. Many years later, we found out that my grandmother had never seen that name written down, only heard it pronounced in a South African accent. In fact the daughter's name was Annie.

I'm thinking of Pauline and Ennie, or Pesha and Annie, because it's February, and because of the oranges.

Every year, throughout my childhood, in the darkest, snowiest days of winter, one day the doorbell would ring and there'd be a man outside with a huge wooden crate.

We would bring it inside and prize the lid off and inside would be lots of huge, glorious oranges.

I liked oranges anyway. But to see them, so many of them, come from so far away in a special crate just for us - - well, it was magic.

Every year for years they arrived, unannounced, bringing summer sunshine to a cold British winter.

I never met either Pesha or Annie and they must both be dead now. But they'll live on in my orange memories.