Monday, March 31, 2008

Everyday Photos

I love looking at old photos, both my own and other people's. With my own photos, sometimes it's not the holiday photos that are the best reminder - it's the everyday photos. For that reason I take lots of photographs of everyday things, and they're always interesting to look back on.

They show, instantly and amazingly, what has changed, and what has stayed the same.

Here, poignantly, is the Communist, who then had two legs, painting the garage in 2002:

And here are some buns that Emily made. It's impossible to tell how old this photo is, of course, but actually they were eaten long ago, in 2001:

And finally, here's our cat Froggie, asleep in a box on the windowsill in the office, in a photograph that could have been taken this afternoon.

But it wasn't: it was taken in 2002. Everything looks the same, including the cat.

We still have the same curtains, in a rather hideous shade of Seventies Yellow.

They are Seventies Yellow because they date from the Seventies, in fact. In one place there is patch which dates from where my brother's hamster escaped and ate a hole in the curtains, in something like 1972.

You can tell a lot from photos. Perhaps it's time for some new curtains.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

At the Concert

I was taken to a lot of classical concerts as a child, many of them in Leeds Town Hall. I didn't enjoy them. I didn't like the stuffy pomposity of it all. I didn't like all that palaver with the orchestra, all dressed in black and white, and the conductor calling them all to attention, and the solemnity.

It wasn't that I didn't like the music - well, okay, some of it I didn't like - but my dislike was more caused by all that crap it was wrapped up in. Any of the music that I might, perhaps, have loved, was ruined for me by the hallowed atmosphere.

Of course, I had to sit very quietly for a long period, but I didn't really mind that - I'd have been happy to do that if I had a book to read. But, of course, you couldn't read a book - it wasn't polite.

It was, however, light enough to read - certainly for someone like me who had practised the art of reading in almost no light every evening after I was supposed to be going to sleep. So I would read the programme, from cover to cover, in spite of the fact that it really wasn't very interesting.

And then my thoughts would wander. I should have been lost in the music: I wasn't. The music was lost to me. I'd be thinking about something else entirely.

I remember, years later, reading a book called The Shrimp and the Anemone by L.P.Hartley who wrote the rather more famous The Go-Between. In it one of the characters said that when they listened to music, after a while they didn't hear the music: it just made them think harder about something else.

Yes! That's me! I thought.

And I'm still like that. Not with rock or pop or modern jazz, though. With rock or pop, I either like it or I don't - and I often do - and, unless it's very dull, I hear the whole thing. With modern jazz, I generally just reach very fast for the off button.

But with classical music I think ooh, that's lovely - - beautiful - - those soaring violins - - ah, there's the brass coming in - - must pay the Visa bill - - need to clean the bathroom - - I wonder whether that actor will get an audition? - - what colour should the hall be when we decorate? - - how can I best phrase that letter ?- - oh, the music's finished.

If it's on the radio I just tune in again mentally when the announcer says something like "which Debussy wrote on his deathbed," because my mind registers that I'm now hearing WORDS!

I'm not sure whether I tune out of classical music because of my early experience at those concerts, or whether I would have been like this anyway. I find it very difficult to recognise most pieces of classical music, unless it's one I really really like.

This astonishes everyone. They think I am Uncultured. They say, "But, Daphne, you must know what it is!" and then do a lot of "I don't believe it!" when I say I really don't know.

If I really need to remember how a piece of music goes, then I invent some words to go with it. And then, for ever after, I can't hear the music without hearing the words too. If someone invents the words for me, then I'll remember the piece for ever, though not, perhaps, as its composer intended.

Remember Mozart's Horn Concerto, with Flanders and Swann words?
"I once had a whim and I had to obey it, to buy a French horn in a second-hand shop:
I polished it up and I started to play it, in spite of my neighbour who begged me to stop."

I haven't been to a classical concert for years so I don't know if they're still the same, with all that formal black and white garb and everyone sitting in reverential silence punctuated by the occasional burst of coughing.

If they are still like that, then I think it's doing the future of classical music a disservice.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

An Elephant Paints a Picture

Here's an interesting video: please watch it before you read on.

The elephant begins to paint and paints - - an elephant.

A self-portrait, perhaps? Another elephant?

There's something about it that doesn't ring true for me. I don't think it's painting an elephant's view of an elephant. I just don't believe that an elephant would give itself that flower to hold. And, further, it's not painting, it's drawing. I don't think an elephant would do a line-drawing.

But (as quite often, I hear you say) I don't know what I'm talking about. I don't know how I would set about teaching an elephant to draw like this. But what I'd do, I'd guess, is give it something to copy and give it a reward of something it really liked every time it copied a bit correctly.

Now I don't know whether that would work. I don't know much about elephants. The only creatures I have handy to experiment with are one cat, three leopard geckos and a snake.

I have taught the cat to find the warmest place in the house and sleep in it. I have taught the leopard geckos to walk onto my hand and to eat waxworms that I hold for them. I have taught the snake - - well, not much really, its learning skills are distinctly limited. I haven't taught any of them how to paint, I know.

But if you gave me an elephant, and something that elephants really like to eat, and quite a bit of time, and a couple of easels, and some paper, and some paint - - well, who knows?

What do you think? I'd love to be told that this elephant, quite spontaneously, painted its own self-portrait. But my suspicious mind tells me it very probably didn't.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Back in Blighty

When I started this blog it was really because I enjoy writing - and occasionally ranting! - about things and it never occurred to me that there were real people out there who might read it, and whom I might meet.

I met Silverback twice last autumn, after we'd been reading each other's blogs for a while. When we met, I instantly wished we'd met sooner. It was my fault entirely that we hadn't - I was thinking, well, we seem to get on when leaving comments on each other's blogs - - what if we don't like each other in real life?

Then he went off to Florida for the winter - - we've kept in touch - - and now he's back, just the same but with one helluva suntan: a fairly new friend who feels like a very old friend, in the best sense of the word.

Welcome back, good sir, and hurrah for blogging.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Embroidering the Past

My grandmother, my mother's mother, Charlotte Bleasdale, died in 1991, age 93.

One of her hobbies was sewing: embroidery and tapestry. Much of this was in the form of tablecloths, or framed as pictures.

Recently, my mother found this on a piece of material in a drawer:

Amy, who was my mum's schoolfriend and who married my mum's cousin Frank, decided to make it into a cushion cover: here she is doing it.

That was yesterday: by today it was finished:

Now I used to muddle my way through sewing classes at school - I even won a prize once for my hand-sewn buttonholes for goodness' sake! - but I never enjoyed any of it. By the age of about fourteen I had concluded that life, for me, is too short to do stuff involving a needle and thread.

But I really admire those who do, such as when Amytree, last Friday, decided to make herself a new dress, and did.

Our Amy, pictured, can do anything with sewing too: she can make clothes or curtains and recently made a jumper out of wool she'd found caught on bushes, collected, spun into yarn and knitted.

These soon-to-be-eighty-four year-olds are not short on skills.

I love the history in this cushion-cover. My grandmother did the embroidery in the late 1960s or early 1970s and now it's been made into a cushion-cover in 2007, nearly forty years later. I love that kind of thing, that continuity: it seems to give us a toehold on time.


The screen is split in two: on the left hand side is a man in the driving seat of a car: on the right hand side we see a young woman in a middle-class, clean kitchen. She is holding a mobile phone to her ear whilst wiping her hands on a dishcloth.

His phone rings and he answers whilst he is driving.

Woman: Hi, how'd it go?

Man: Yeah, it went well. I'm on my way back now so I'll tell you about it when I get home.

Woman: Okay, well, the kids are in bed and the dinner's on, so - -

We suddenly see a look of terror in the man's eyes and he hurtles forward and bangs his head on the dashboard, then falls back again, unconscious or very probably dead. Blood trickles from his nose. The woman hears the crash.

Woman: Tim - - - Tim - - can you hear me? - - Tim? - -

We see her begin to break down in tears.

Voiceover: You don't have to be in a car to cause a crash. Think. The moment you know they're driving, kill the conversation.
I saw this on the television just now: very well-acted, I thought. However, whilst I understand the message, the stereotypes portrayed really annoyed me: hunter-gatherer macho man in suit returning from a conference to little wifey, and it's all her fault that he dies!

And yet, when the man answers the phone, there are no traffic noises: it's really not clear that the woman knows he's in a car. He could be walking through the car park for all that she knows.

I think that the end voiceover should be:

"Women! Don't marry a man who answers his mobile whilst driving!"

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


I remembered to set last night's Horizon to record. It was a programme about memory. I watched it about an hour ago and I've already forgotten most of what it was about, because it was one of those programmes that was far more form than content.

Lots of music and lots of visual effects of flashy and wibbly things to convey the effect of - - well, I'm not sure, really. To convey the effect that it was a kind of scientific programme.

There was a French-Canadian girl who'd been sexually abused and they gave her a drug to make the memory fade, and it seemed to be working. There was a man with Alzheimer's: he'd had it diagnosed at the age of fifty-three, and now, seven years later, he could talk about how he could still run. But he couldn't, say, get himself a glass of water.

One of the key points it made - actually, one of the only points, as far as I can remember - was that memory doesn't just help you to reminisce about the past, it helps you to plan the future. So if one day you were on your way home and a lion rushed from its den and tried to eat you, but you escaped, you would have a bad memory of the event and would also know not to go past the lion's den the next day: you'd go the long way round instead.

This kind of autobiographical memory, it explained (see, I'm beginning to remember more about it now) is different from the kind of memory that remembers FACTS. The autobiographical memory doesn't really kick in until the age of five, apparently.

Hmm, I'm not so sure about that. I remember lots of things from before I was five, and so does Emily. But we were both early talkers and late walkers (you can cut out those exclamations of mock-surprise right now). Emily started to talk at ten months old. I'm convinced that early language acquisition helps with early memory, because language gives you a framework to remember things with.

But perhaps that's just me, because I'm so words-orientated. Certainly, at school, I always reckoned I could remember just about anything if it was put into words: give me a mnemonic and I'd remember it for ever. And they gave us plenty.

Let us consider adjectives in Latin that keep the e, shall we? Here's a little rhyme we were given:

A tener slave with an asper ring
His legs were lacer, poor miser thing
If I were liber ac prosper, he said
I'd have frugifer hands and a plumiger head.

Okay, I haven't considered adjectives in Latin that keep the e since before my sixteenth birthday, since I'd done the O-level by then. So I decided to look in my head and see if they were still there. And up they popped immediately. Here's the meaning:

A TENDER slave with a ROUGH ring
His legs were LACERATED, poor WRETCHED thing
If I were FREE and PROSPEROUS, he said
I'd have FRUITFUL hands and a FEATHERY head.

The keeping the e bit - since I know this fascinates you - was that when you decline the word (oh, don't ask), instead of going tener, tener, tenrum, and missing the e out, it goes tener, tener, tenerum, and keeps the e, and there are only a few adjectives that do that, and these are they.

Memory, eh? Wonderful, and so very useful.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Great Expectations

The Communist has been living in the nursing home since just before Christmas, though with a month's break which he spent in the grim Beckett Wing of St James's Hospital in Leeds.

His brain is working fine, mostly, except where it fails to tell him that the rest of him really isn't. He has only got one leg, of course: his hands don't work properly - he can't even sign his name - and has no strength at all. His eyes don't seem to work in unison any more so he finds it hard to read.

His best friend, Syd, visits him often - he is the same age as The Communist and they have been friends since they were fourteen or so.

Now they are both eighty-four-and-a-half. Syd is remarkably physically fit in many ways, but unfortunately is nearly blind. Since he's been like this for over twenty years, he doesn't really pay much attention to it, and is often to be seen walking along fast and with determination, using a white cane.

Now the problem is, Syd can hear the Communist's voice, which sounds fine, but can't see how he looks. So he comes up with lots of interesting ideas for the Communist, all completely unworkable, and the Communist repeats them as if they were dictated by Karl Marx himself.

"Syd says I need a laptop. He says I could surf the internet. Could I borrow yours?"

So, where to start? He couldn't switch it on, or understand anything about it, or press any of the buttons, or even read a web page if he found one.

But if I say this to him, it sounds really negative, and I know it would upset him. So I try to distract him and hope he forgets about it - though really, he isn't particularly forgetful and will doubtless mention it the next time I visit.

So - bring in the laptop and prove to him how much he's deteriorated, or avoid the issue and let him think that I cruelly won't lend it to him?

And then there's the artificial leg. He mentions that every time I visit. "When I get my artificial leg - - ". The trouble with this one is that when he says that, anyone who doesn't know much about such things chimes in with "Oh yes, that'll be good, when do you get it?"

It takes seventy percent more energy to walk with an artificial leg than with a real one. So for a man of eighty-four-and-a-half who has lost all his strength, it's a non-starter. But if I say this - and I have done, many, many times, in many different ways - I just feel cruel.

He does take in explanations of most things so I think the reason he keeps coming back to the artificial leg idea is that he's hoping that, one day, I'll say "Yes, that's a great idea, it's coming tomorrow and you'll be able to walk again by the end of the week."

When I'm not there he tries more things out in the hope of getting a positive response. I reckon he thinks he'll get away with it more with other people who aren't Cruel Daphne.

"He says he's going to go to visit Michael in Amsterdam," says my mother in tones of panic.
"And how, exactly is he going to do that?" I ask.

Of course some of his friends who were visiting him had said, when he announced this far-fetched and impossible idea, "Oh yes, great idea, all the airlines make provision for disabled passengers."

After three hours in the wheelchair he's exhausted. My brother lives at the top of one of those tall, thin Amsterdam houses, with hundreds of narrow stairs.

To get him into the wheelchair or out of it, or onto the easy chair, or onto the bed, takes two nurses and a hoist. And he has to be turned in the middle of the night, and that takes two nurses too.

Of course it's good that he's making positive plans for the future. It's just that I tend to be the one who has to burst his bubble, and I hate it.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Getting it Wrong

I enjoy documentaries, even those strange ones on Channel Five that repeat everything every thirty seconds for the hard of understanding:

Chantelle, who has lived on nothing but Kit-Kats for the last thirty years, arrives at the Karl Marx Clinic in Texas to meet Dr Reginald Battenburg, in the hope that he will cure her of her addiction - -

But, in general, if it's a BBC documentary, I tend to assume that the facts in it will be more or less correct.

Then my brother sent me this link to a Radio 4 documentary about something I can claim to know a lot about.

The Simulated Patient
Documentary looking at an unusual aspect of medical training. Medical schools hire actors to play the roles of patients in order to allow trainee doctors to practise the art of breaking bad news. Some older doctors are sceptical about the value of such education.

I haven't listened to the documentary yet because I am too busy wanting to kill whoever wrote the trashy blurb, above.

So here are the errors and half-truths: because I know the facts!

1) It isn't an unusual aspect of medical training at all. All medical schools use simulated patients. It was unusual when I started working as a simulated patient. That was in 1985, which is quite a while ago now.

2) Medical schools hire actors - - well, sometimes simulated patients are actors. And sometimes they're not. Many come from other backgrounds. Some actors make brilliant simulated patients - other actors are too full of "look at ME!" to be any use as a learning resource.

3) in order for trainee doctors to practise the art of breaking bad news - well, yes. And for many other things too - such as explaining medical procedures, and what's called "taking a history" of the patient's illness, and to practise arriving at a joint decision with the patient with regard to their treatment, and for assessment in examinations, to name but a few.

4) Some older doctors are sceptical about the value of such education.
This line infuriates me, because, as the final line of the Trashy Blurb, with its patronising use of "such education" it seems to suspect that they might be right.
And they're not. "Some older doctors" are closed-minded, supercilious gits, so sod them. Every other doctor - including many older doctors - can see the value of this kind of work.

Work with simulated patients can - and should - seem totally real, even though the learners know that it isn't. There is absolutely no substitute for practising the actual words that you might say. Doctors who don't are liable to make those "Oh, sorry, didn't you know it was cancer?" statements.

It does make me wonder. When I read the blurb for a documentary about, say, the avocado-growers of Venezuela, I wonder how many factual errors there are? And that's before we've started watching the actual documentary itself.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday doesn't usually look like this. Here's how it looked at 6am this morning when I woke up, apparently for the express purpose of putting in a bit of pointless worry about Emily and Gareth freezing to death in their tent at the Maelstrom Live Action Roleplay event. (They kindly rang me later to state their stillaliveness).

Here's the side street next to our house:

and here are some of the trees in our front garden:

Is it any wonder that the British bang on constantly about the weather, when it does things like this in March when it's supposed to be Spring?

Let's go back a month, shall we, to the middle of February, in deep midwinter, and Emily and Gareth's wedding: here they are in Tenby, South Wales:

and here's the view from Park Hotel:

Thanks to John who took these two beautiful photos.

When I was a child you tended to get Winter in Winter and Spring in Spring. Not any more though.

I've always liked Easter time: I'm not religious, as you know, but it's always seemed to me to be both a marker as the beginning of Spring, and a reminder of what we're about.

Easter was a time when our family tended to get together in one way or another. Often we went to the Lake District, or for trips to the Yorkshire Dales.

This year it doesn't really feel like Easter: it's too early and too cold. But, at the risk of sounding like Thought for the Day (and how I hate that slot on Radio Two) I want to say something along the lines of what I believe and it's this:

There isn't a God: we can't look to God to solve our problems. Never mind that "good God-fearing folk" bit - - let us, as grown-ups, (oh, well, nearly) not need the fear of God to behave in a decent manner to each other, and to look after each other, and hence to make things better for everyone.

Okay, that's what I believe. Easy to do for friends and loved ones of all kinds, of course. Less easy to do for David's Very Very Boring Neighbour.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Murder at the Bonfire

There hasn't been an Easter as early as this for years and years and there won't be another one as early as this for years and years.

This fact has no bearing on Emily and Gareth's decision to spend it all at a Live Action Roleplay Event near Birmingham called Maelstrom. This is the kind of historical fantasy roleplay where you dress up in costume and become a different character for the weekend, and they love LARPing as it's called.

Unfortunately, because it's the earliest Easter for years and years, see above, and there's snow on the ground, it wasn't perhaps the best time to be spending it in a field and sleeping in a tent, as Emily and Gareth are, but they claimed to still be alive when I spoke to them this morning, so I didn't need to wake up at six this morning to worry about them in any way at all.

Last night there was an Easter bonfire at my friends' house in Headingley. Undeterred by the howling winds and snow flurries, David had spent all afternoon constructing the fire (really, he could teach Bonfire Construction at top universities). Finally, at the appointed time of eight o'clock, he lit it with one match and this happened:

Of course, it's hard to tell the scale of it from this photograph, but if you look carefully you will see that the flames are coming from an old Christmas tree. The tree's in the bottom right of the flames, standing upright: and it was as least as tall as I am, which isn't very tall at five feet four inches, granted, but you can see the flames are pretty high even in this picture.

About one second later the flames whooshed even higher and I was too busy trying not to be set on fire to take another photograph - but they reached right up to the third-floor window of the very tall house. Something to do with lots of oxygen in the gusty wind as well as the sap in the wood - that's the extent of my technical explanation.

The people in the top flat were about to come down to the bonfire, but luckily managed to take some photos of How We Nearly Died In David's Conflagration before they did.

After a while, the flames died down a bit and people ate and drank and chatted round the bonfire. An eighteen-day-old baby came and joined us for a while: she seemed to enjoy it and will grow up thinking it's normal to stand out in the freezing cold and dark when you don't have to. Good pictures in the flames though:

The round things are tree stumps.

Then the snow started in earnest and eventually we all went inside and sat round in the warm - particularly pleasing when you've been standing round in the cold.

Finally there were only a few of us left, including Very Very Boring Elderly Neighbour. I think she was surely the original model for Miss Bates in Jane Austen's Emma. She talks entirely in a monologue; has a way of holding forth at great length about dull distant relatives that you've never heard of, never listening to a word you say in reply, linking every sentence with "But" so there is absolutely no way into the conversation - - and then you feel guilty when you want to drag her outside and roast her on the bonfire.

I stood there, silent before the onslaught, like a rabbit in headlights, along with everyone else, and I was cruelly thinking to myself - and simultaneously hating myself for thinking it - "Say ten more words and you're going on my blog. Ten, nine - - "

What I'd like to do is to write a cruel and hopefully funny parody of her, but I'm mindful of the fact that Mr Knightley told Emma off for mocking Miss Bates, and pointed out in no uncertain terms that it wasn't fair. And I know it's not fair, and I generally feel so sorry for this lady right until the moment she's in front of me, when I want to kill her. And we did all listen politely, and she won't have known the thoughts of murder that were in our minds.

David's household are always kind to Very Very Boring Neighbour, and indeed even I have been known to do a hundred years or so with her in a fifteen-minute slot, listening to her and feeling horrible and hypocritical the whole time.

I hate feeling like this: I feel cruel: I feel tainted: I don't like myself for feeling so impatient, even if I didn't show it. One of the things she said last night was "My father always told me my paintings were rubbish". And then I thought, hey, Daphne, be more understanding, like you usually are and like you'd claim to be and like your friends - I hope - would say you are.

Then she talked non-stop for another twenty minutes and I wanted to pick her up and throw her against the wall. I suppose the crucial thing is that I didn't.

Friday, March 21, 2008

A Time of Joyous Bliss

One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret never to be told, eight for a wish, nine for a kiss, ten for a time of joyous bliss.

So goes the old rhyme about magpies. Many people don't like them. They're big loud scavengers and they eat just about anything, including eggs and nestlings from other birds.

I do like them. I like all the crow-type birds for their intelligence and mischief.

In my dream last night the magpies were part of a huge national scam.

People had gradually begun to notice vast wire cages all over the countryside, full of magpies. Although the perpetrators of this strange crime had tried to keep it all secret, eventually the reason was discovered and I found out about it.

Hens had become very expensive and hence the hens' eggs in supermarkets were being replaced by magpies' eggs.

It gave me a strange, haunted feeling. I awoke to the sound of the birds' wings flapping and flapping and beating and beating against the wire of the cages, with a gale blowing outside the bedroom.

There were hundreds and hundreds of magpies. I hope they were in multiples of ten.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Form Hell

I love doing the medical roleplay work. Sometimes I love it so much I find myself thinking hey, I'd do this for free if I didn't need the money.

And recently I've been running the risk of actually doing it for free. Because in order to get paid, I have to fill in a form.

And because I work for several different companies, universities and departments of universities, I have to fill in lots of forms.

But because I've been so busy, I just haven't got round to the tedious job of filling in all the forms.

Until this afternoon, when I just thought okay, woman, get on with it. Really, there are only so many times you can bear to fill in your bank details and National Insurance number and date of birth and tell them that you're white and female and able-bodied.

This afternoon I did it on eight different forms. And all the companies pay different mileage rates (and they're all too low!) I work for two departments of the same university - how come one lot pay a stingy 34p per mile and the other lot only a measly pittance of 23p? And one lot have changed so they now pay a maximum of 70 miles travel - - - even though I live 65 miles away, which comes to a total of 130 miles, does it not? - - Perhaps I won't be working for them again.

Then in the coming weeks I will have to examine my bank statement with incredible diligence (always depressing) to find out if they have actually paid me. And the payments - when they arrive - are always from some group of initials or name which is near-impossible to marry up with the actual job done.

And then there will be the ones that don't arrive, and I'll have to chase those up. Now I'm quite good at that kind of thing in my actual job - - but when it comes to chasing my own payments I'm really bad at it, I put it in my mental "I'll do that tomorrow" file.

When someone tells me, on the subject of an invoice for one of our actors, that it's been "sent to Finance" and disappeared, that's like a red rag to a bull for me - - I'm on to Kevin in Finance like a shot and will give him hell until he coughs up.

When, however, it's just for me, I just heave a big sigh and think oh, well, yes, I must chase it sometime, and then I go away and do something else.

But at least I've filled in the forms. It's a start.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

I Told You So

Okay, I didn't really tell him. But I would have, if he'd had the sense to ask me. Don't do it, I'd have said. It will all turn out badly. Believe me.

My friend David says I'm cursed with being right but often lack the courage to push home my knowledge.

Sometimes I try, though. I wrote to my MP at the time they were considering building the Millennium Dome and told him it was all going to cost a lot of money and be a disaster. I suggested he should go outside and ask the first twenty people he saw whether they were planning to visit it and, if they said they were, that'd be fine but otherwise, forget it.

He wrote back a rather sheepish letter which suggested that he probably agreed with me but all the money was in place and it was all going to happen and nobody could stop it.

Back to more recent events.

Anyway, I was a bit sweet on Paul when I was eight or so but he didn't seem to remember this or ask my advice when he was thinking of marrying Heather.

"Rearrange these two words," I would have said to him. "One is Digger and the other is Gold."

The publication of the court judgement proves me right.

Never mind the main stuff she was after: let's have a look at the Other Expenses, shall we?

£499,000 for holidays
(accommodation at £242,000, helicopter flights at £35,000, commercial flights at £72,000 and private flights at £150,000)
£125,000 for her clothes
£30,000 for equestrian activities
£39,000 for wine
£43,000 for a driver
£150,000 for dining out, entertaining and other interests in the UK

Yes, yes, she's a big supporter of charities, we know, we know. And I know that the judge, in making the award, reduced her claims by a hundred million quid. But that's a hell of a lot of clothes, and wine, and horse riding, isn't it?

Okay, perhaps I'm in the minority these days in believing that once you've got more than a certain amount of stuff, once you're what the rest of us would class as rich, then your happiness doesn't increase proportionally to your wealth. A designer frock might seem a necessity, but surely it's what you do whilst wearing it that counts.

If she really wanted to come out of it all with some credibility, wouldn't it have been great if she'd said,

"He was a very rich man who'd fairly recently lost his wife. And I look a bit like her, so I suppose that's why he approached me initially. But it didn't work out and it was a short marriage. I want our daughter to have as normal an upbringing as possible. If he wants to give her some money that's fine. A couple of million would be great for me - that's plenty. I want to earn my own living."

Fat chance. But Paul always seems a decent bloke, and I wish I'd been wrong.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

I'm Sorry, Dave, I Can't Do That

I was shocked to learn just now that Arthur C. Clarke, writer of the book that was made by Stanley Kubrick into the film 2001: A Space Odyssey has died today. I know he was ninety, but it was still a shock.

Some films seem more than films: they seem to creep into your consciousness and become part of you, and that's how I feel about this one. It doesn't seem like a film that I saw, more like a remembered experience with Hal the calm, creepy computer "I'm sorry, Dave, I can't do that" and the Strauss waltzes.

It must be fifteen years since I saw the film - perhaps twenty - but it's a film that I won't forget.

Cute Kids

Here's a photo of my brother's daughter Flo at Emily and Gareth's wedding last month (and thanks to John who took the excellent photos).
I was the adored first child of my parents. But, perhaps because I was the first child, and they'd waited seven years to get me, and perhaps because they were like that anyway, they took everything rather seriously.

One of the things they took Very Seriously Indeed was the words you could say. No, not those words - - oh, well, yes, those words too: they were of the "Flipping Heck" school of swearing. I hated euphemisms even then and that's probably the reason I so relish a good "Fucking Hell" dropped into a sentence at the perfect moment.

But some of the words which were banned to me were not the ones which you would expect.

"Cute" was one of them.

I can hear it now, from both my parents and my grandmother - my mother's mother - who lived with us.

"Don't say cute. Cute isn't English. The proper word is sweet."

Well, it isn't, you know. Cute is sweet with a jaunty edge in my working definition of Forbidden Words.

What they really meant was that Cute is American: and the Communist in particular was deeply suspicious of all things American. That strange, distant continent of cowboy films and cash and canyons and capitalism: a far-off land that we were never going to visit. "Are you, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?" - - er, yes, actually, in the Communist's case at least.

My mother and my grandmother's view was slightly different: they didn't think that imported words were Proper English, somehow quietly not noticing that just about every word in the language was imported from somewhere.

Another one of their pet hates was "kids" because it was colloquial and Not Proper English. I know it's frequently used affectionately but Grandma never used it as anything but a term of abuse.

"Haven't you finished that homework yet, kid?" she would say, or "Haven't you tidied your bedroom yet, kid?"

If I ever used it accidentally in some sentence like "I can hear the kids in the playground across the road" then I'd be in for a long lecture on the proper use of language.
I still take a deep breath before using either Cute or Kids. But both are perfectly valid words.
So, here are Daisy and Flo, two cute kids. Now wasn't that brave of me?

Monday, March 17, 2008


Thank you for your comments on my previous post about Shannon Matthews, the nine-year-old from the deeply dodgy family in Dewsbury who was found alive, twenty-four days after being abducted.

One reason I feel so strongly about the tragedy of her life and so many others like it, is that I used to teach very many children from similar backgrounds.

Here's still, for me, the best poem about it all: it's by Charles Causley and it was written over half a century ago but is still fresh and relevant as ever, which is a shame. Wouldn't it be great if we could say there aren't boys like him any more?

Most children now read this poem at school. I expect Shannon Matthews will read it too, when she's a bit older. I wonder what she'll make of it.

Timothy Winters

'Timothy Winters comes to school
With eyes as wide as a football-pool,
Ears like bombs and teeth like splinters:
A blitz of a boy is Timothy Winters.

His belly is white, his neck is dark,
And his hair is an exclamation-mark.
His clothes are enough to scare a crow
And through his britches the blue winds blow.

When teacher talks he won't hear a word
And he shoots down dead the arithmetic-bird,
He licks the pattern off his plate
And he's not even heard of the Welfare State.

Timothy Winters has bloody feet
And he lives in a house on Suez Street,
He sleeps in a sack on the kitchen floor
And they say there aren't boys like him any more.

Old Man Winters likes his beer
And his missus ran off with a bombardier,
Grandma sits in the grate with a gin
And Timothy's dosed with an aspirin.

The welfare worker lies awake
But the law's as tricky as a ten-foot snake,
So Timothy Winters drinks his cup
And slowly goes on growing up.

At Morning Prayers the Master helves
For children less fortunate than ourselves,
And the loudest response in the room is when
Timothy Winters roars "Amen!"

So come one angel, come on ten
Timothy Winters says "Amen
Amen amen amen amen."
Timothy Winters, Lord. Amen

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Happy Ending for Shannon

It's not often that a missing child is found, alive and well, twenty-four days after going missing.

Shannon Matthews, nine, of Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, was found hiding in the base of a divan bed, with her abductor in the space next to her.

Wonderful news! The whole nation rejoices, yes?

Well, it's not quite as simple as that.

Paul Drake, 39 (I love the way newspapers always do that age thing after the name) who abducted her, is also known as Michael Donovan, 39, for no apparent reason, and he turns out to be the uncle of her stepfather, Craig Meehan, 22, who lives with her mother, Karen, 32, who also has a further six children, varying ages, by five different fathers, names and ages unknown, probably even to Karen, 32.

Poor Shannon, 9, didn't quite make McCann-grade newspaper coverage when she was missing, because she's from Dewsbury, which isn't glamorous, and she's not photogenic and is just that bit too old to look cute. Sorry, Shannon, we just didn't care enough about you, really.

The police tried to find someone in Shannon's family to make the usual tearful televised appeal for her return, but didn't find anyone with the sex appeal of Kate McCann, so in the end didn't bother as they felt that if we saw any of the rest of the family it would just make us wish that the rest of them would get lost, too.

Paul Drake, 39, alias Michael Donovan, 39, turns out to be the uncle of Craig Meehan, 22, who is politely described as Shannon's "stepfather" but we all know that's police-speak for "latest in a long line of boyfriends".

So, perhaps they'll return Shannon to the bosom of her loving family. In which case she'll be pregnant herself in five years, maybe four, will do badly at school, leave early, never have any sort of a proper job and have seven children by five different fathers in about fifteen years' time.

Otherwise, as Those in Charge seem to be doing, they'll put her with foster parents, in which case she'll have a slightly better chance.

But - - a happy and fulfilling life ahead of her? I wouldn't bet on it.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Venison Burgers

This is part of the spirit of the times, isn't it? Farmers' Markets. They're springing up everywhere.

Today was the first one at Oakwood in Leeds - quite a number of stalls crammed into the small space under the well-known Oakwood Clock.

It was absolutely packed and I would like to be able to report to you about the delicious local produce to be found there - but unfortunately I couldn't get near enough to most of the stalls to find out what they were selling, which I suspect bodes well for the future of the monthly market.

The free-range eggs (6 for a pound) were very nice though, when boiled, with toast fingers (they were always "fingers" never "soldiers" insisted my anti-militaristic parents in their usual slightly OTT way).

There were stalls selling local meat, jams, chutneys, bread, cheese - and venison burgers.

No, I didn't try one: I don't think "Venison Burgers" sound very tempting.

How about "Bambi in a Bap"?

Friday, March 14, 2008

Healthy Eating for Doctors

I've finished working with the doctors now. Not one of them called me Mr Johnson today. The high heels and fishnet tights seem to have done the trick.

One thing about these long days is there is lots of food. Not the usual type of corporate food either - the triangular mayonnaise-sandwiches kind: it is Proper Food, of the kind that people like to eat. And this is our downfall.

I'll tell you how my thinking goes. And, from my extensive research amongst the others - roleplayers and assessors - so does everyone else's. It's not just me. Honest.

Of course I have my usual bowl of porridge before setting off - - it's about an hour and a half's drive to Northern City, and I'm Type 2 diabetic after all so never go anywhere without breakfast.

And then when I arrive there are fresh bread rolls and a whole big pile of bacon, and coffee and orange juice and French pastries and a big bowl of fruit.

Well, on Day One of it I thought hey, healthy fruit, I'll have some of that with some orange juice, because I've had my breakfast.

By Day Two I'm thinking well, I'll have a wholemeal bacon sandwich as well, that's very nearly healthy, isn't it?

By Day Three I'm adding coffee, because I'm very tired: I make the bacon sandwich automatically, because it will give me stamina, and also I'll have the healthy orange juice and an apple.

By Day Four I'm on to coffee, orange juice, bacon sandwich, French pastry - in case my blood sugar drops, of course, and anyway I never eat such things at home, and one won't do any harm, surely? - I have by this stage developed an interesting belief that eating the apple after the rest will cancel everything else out: it kind of overrides it, bringing negative calories and health-giving properties.

So by the time the actual work starts at about half past nine I've eaten more than I'd normally eat for breakfast and lunch combined.

And, looking round the room, everyone else is doing exactly the same. Furthermore, we're all looking forward to quarter to one, when lunch will arrive.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Collective Noun for Doctors

After three long days in Northern City, getting up at 5.30am and getting home at about 7pm, with some very intensive work in between, I have gone past Tired, surged through Totally Knackered, tottered along the main highway of Absolutely Exhausted and come out the other side into Spaced Out and Hyper.

In the middle of it all I have been wondering what the collective noun for doctors should be.

After some thought, I decided that two possibilites for the old-school type of doctor would be either:

An Importance of Doctors

or perhaps

A Superiority of Doctors

Now, I hope we are heading towards

A Competence of Doctors

or even

An Empathy of Doctors

And tomorrow is the last day of this Northern City work. It's a long time since I've been this tired, but I do seem able to snap myself into focus during the actual work, which is probably a Good Thing.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Too Early

I'm just not good at going to sleep early. Twenty to one in the morning is my time for going to sleep, though it can be later. It's hardly ever earlier.

Yesterday evening, because of having to get up at half past five again to go to A Northern City, I was in bed and asleep by eleven o'clock.

I didn't like it. I like those hours between eleven and one. I am a night owl. That's it. End of.

And I'm going to bed now, because I have to get up at half past five again tomorrow.

But it's unnatural. I feel cheated.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Back from the Northern City

It was a long day in the Northern City, but they looked after us well and fed us well - - we actors always appreciate it when we get the same food as the assessors!

I'm not really an actor of course, I'm a roleplayer. Some people who do medical roleplay for the training or assessment of health professionals come from an acting background: others from a teaching background - like me - and some from a patient background.

Some actors are brilliant roleplayers. All the people I was working with today were Proper Actors who do roles in television and theatre and such, and they're all excellent roleplayers.

Some actors, however, aren't very good at roleplay as they want it to all be about them, rather than about the learner: they spend the whole roleplay going "Look at Me!" in different ways.

Similarly, some none-actors can make great roleplayers but others don't: they aren't really capable of becoming a character other than themselves.

On to the learners, or those being assessed. One thing I've noticed about weaker candidates on any kind of assessment days is that they're so nervous that they don't really take in anything that's going on much. And the below has happened to me a few times now.

So there I am, waiting outside the room to be called in by the doctor, and out he comes, looks me up and down, and then says firmly,

"Ah, you must be Mr. Johnson. Please come in."

This doesn't generally get us off on a good footing. Now, hey, I may never wear lots of make-up and jewellery, but most people do seem able to tell at one glance that I'm not a bloke: I do have curvy bits and everything.

I'm trying to think of what I might wear tomorrow to help the candidates with this interesting gender dilemma.

Monday, March 10, 2008


Suddenly, every qualified doctor in the country wants to be a GP (a family doctor in general practice) it seems. Whether this could be anything to do with the fact that they've just had a massive pay rise and a correspondingly massive cut in hours worked, I leave it up to you to decide.

To become a GP takes three years' training now, for qualified doctors. And to be a GP needs excellent communication skills - as you'll all know, because you'll all have encountered a GP who lacks them!

So the doctors who want to be GPs are assessed nationally on various things including communication skills, before they're accepted onto the training programme.

And that's all I can tell you, I think, because of course how they're assessed is highly confidential and very detailed. But I'm involved with it for the next four days, in a large Northern city, about an hour and a half's drive from where I live.

And I have to be there at eight in the morning and might not finish until half past six. Having made my bid for sympathy, though, I must say that I really enjoyed it last year - it's very demanding and there's something satisfying in doing something demanding and getting it right.

Oh yes, and the food was excellent too, and the actors - for once - got the same food as the doctors who were assessing the applicants.

I hope to post during the next four days as usual - but if I don't, it's because I'm just too exhausted!

Sunday, March 09, 2008

It's Like Herding Cats

It's my friend Connie's birthday tomorrow: she'll be eighty-eight. She's the mother of the first friend I made when I went to university, many moons ago, and I've met her for lunch about once a fortnight for about twenty-five years.

She's doing pretty well for eighty-eight - she's still got all her chairs at home, to use her own phrase to mean she's still completely with-it mentally. But she's a bit slow. And she can't see very well, but won't admit this, even to herself.

So, since I'll be working on her birthday of course, Stephen and I thought we'd take her out to lunch today, and take my mother too.

Last weekend, of course, was Mother's Day and I wasn't really able to do anything about it as it was the actors' agency monthly meeting. I was slightly miffed when several of the actors didn't come to the meeting because they were taking their mothers out for Mother's Day - - er, what about my mother? I asked in tones of petulance.

So we scooped up my mother and took her for lunch today too, having plied them both with lots of M and S flowers, which they did seem to like.

We went to the Wellington pub, which has become a favourite haunt of ours since I finally - and stupidly belatedly - got round to checking out Silverback's recommendation and found that we really liked it.

There's a carvery, which I like, Stephen likes and both my mother and Connie like: Connie because she likes the food and it's excellent value and my mother because she likes the food and it's excellent value even for my mother, who eats about as much as the average tadpole.

But you have to watch these oldies. Life is one long booby-trap for them, even though they're both remarkably fit. Steps to fall up or down. My mother can't hear. Connie can't see. They both get easily confused by anything at all new. So you have to keep track of them every inch of the way as they get their food.

They really enjoyed it but they both eat very slowly. I eat very fast. I probably always have done but I think my excessive speed really dates from when Emily was a baby and didn't find adults eating a very exciting thing to witness.

So I've finished my first course and by that time they've just got on to their second piece of carrot and I hate hanging around waiting. I just hate it. I know it's a flaw in me, but make me wait two minutes for anything and I've got my emergency book out of my bag and am buried in it. Can't do that in these circumstances though!

And it's daft. It's Sunday. I wasn't rushing to get back to work or anything. But even so there's a little clock ticking in me going "Hurry up and finish your food!" Though it's a pleasure to see them enjoying the trip out so much.

So afterwards Connie wanted to visit The Communist, which was nice of her, and I know it's nearly impossible for her to get there by bus. So I drove to the bike shop, left Stephen there so he could collect his bike which was being mended and then cycle home, and took Mum and Connie to The Communist's nursing home.

Now then, I'll tell you two things about old people: firstly, they can't work seat belts, and secondly, they always think everything's gone missing and that someone else has moved it.

When they get in the car they make no attempt to put their seat belt on and you always have to remind them and then they say "Oh, we never used to bother with these things" and then they can't do it anyway and you have to lean across them and they try to help and it's all very tricky.

And then at the nursing home they get involved in a long discussion about missing socks. Three of The Communist's socks are, apparently, missing. Where could the missing socks be? Who could have taken them? Are they in this drawer? Or in that cupboard? Or in the wardrobe? Every drawer is emptied and pored over. I keep saying, doggedly, "Perhaps they've gone to be washed."

Finally they've searched every possible place and a few highly unlikely ones.

"Perhaps they've gone to be washed," says Connie and Mum swiftly agrees.

"Unless someone's taken them, of course," adds Mum. A conversation about possible Nursing-Home Sock Thieves ensues. Finally we all agree that we will Wait and See before calling Interpol.

And Connie has brought some tulips and these have to go into a vase but the only vase in existence is occupied by clinging-to-life daffodils which are claiming squatters' rights. I'd've just chucked them merrily in the bin but oh, no, a new vase had to be found and the elderly daffodils had to have their stalks trimmed and be generally rescued.

Finally I round Connie and Mum up, and get them both in the car, and have the Ceremony of the Seat Belts, and take Connie home, and then drive home.

A very pleasant lunch out. And I'm totally exhausted. Don't get me wrong, I love them all: but sometimes I find work to be easier than leisure.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

City of Cranes

"No Photography" say the notices on Floor 17 of the multi-storey car park.

You can't get into the Leeds University car park on a Tuesday afternoon, oh no. "CAR PARK FULL" says the sign, week after week, and the Usual Man isn't on duty on a Tuesday afternoon, at the kiosk where you get your ticket to go in.

I have struck up some kind of a relationship with the Usual Man where he tells me to drive a bit closer, love, he can't be walking three yards to give me my ticket, and I explain that if I get any closer he'll be under the wheels, and we smile at each other, and he says he's prepared to risk it, and he always lets me in.

Different Man won't ever let me in.

"Car park's full," he says grumpily.

"No it's not," I say, just as a matter of principle really. "Every Tuesday you say this to me and every Tuesday I park on the top floor of the multi-storey and walk through Leeds University passing about a dozen empty spaces in your car park."

"Full," he repeats.

"It really isn't, you know. But I'll just drive round in a loop and park in the multi-storey, like I do every Tuesday, shall I?"

"You'll have to drive round in a loop and park in the multi-storey," says Different Man, who has only been programmed with a repertoire of three phrases or so, like one of those talking dolls.

So I drive to the multi-storey, which is packed with all the cars which have been turned away by Different Man, and end up on Floor 17, right at the top in the open air.

"No Photography" say the signs. On the doors, on the walls. No explanation as to Why Not.

So of course, the first thing I do is get my camera out and take as many photos as I can as obtrusively as possible in the hope that Multi-Storey Jobsworth will call the Riot Squad to restrain me.

But I have clearly reckoned without my ability to project Respectability, and Jobsworth looks at me and moves on. I can tell that he thinks I have eight Important Council Forms in my bag giving me special permission to take photographs. Shame. Just to prove my crime, here are a couple of the pictures.

In the Olden Days, Leeds was a city of old Victorian terraces and old Victorian smog.

Not now, though. Now it's a city of cranes: trendy new buildings shooting up everywhere.

This one's looking over to the University - I expect if you look closely you can see Different Man turning cars away from the car park - and the boat in the front is now a pub. But look! Another crane in the distance. You can't take a photo of the Leeds skyline these days without at least one crane in it.

And I took the photos. From the Woodhouse Lane Car Park. On Tuesday afternoon. I confess. Even small acts of rebellion can be very satisfying. My Dad's a Communist.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Writing on the Wall

I'm a sucker for short, meaningful statements. No Reader's Digest is safe from my attentions as I rummage through for all those little pithy bits they use to fill in the spaces.

Sometimes they're great: sometimes not so great.

Yesterday, I was working Somewhere in Yorkshire and it had little sentences on the walls, like pictures. Rather boringly presented, I must say, but nonetheless interesting.

These two had John Ruskin and Walt Disney next to each other: an unlikely pairing, on the face of it.

I'll come back to these two. A bit further along, I found:

You must be the change you wish to see in the world. - Mahatma Gandhi

It is what we think we know already that often prevents us from learning. - Claude Bernard

Well, I've heard of Gandhi, of course, and I've even seen Richard Attenborough's excellent film. And I liked the quotation - good point, Mr Gandhi.

Claude Bernard was a famous French scientist and I knew nothing about him, though I know a bit more now I've Googled him. I think old Claude is right, though: I think that's true of many of us - it certainly is of me. And I have always remembered this frank exchange of views from when I was teaching:

Daphne: "There's another r in February. You've put Febuary."

Adolescent girl: "That's right, Miss."

Daphne: "No, you need another r. It's February, not Febuary."

Adolescent girl: (dismissively) "Well, I always spells it like that, Miss."

And back to Walt Disney, above:

All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them - Walt Disney

Well, Walt, I wish it were true, but it just isn't. Two seconds of thinking and you know it sounds good but it's trite nonsense.

"Please may I be an astronaut?" - - - No, Daphne, you may not.

"But why not? It's what I've always wanted!"- - - Well, Daphne, you get seasick on a flat calm sea, for starters. And there are a few other reasons, too.

That kind of thinking is what leads tone-deaf contestants on The X-Factor to shout at Simon Cowell "But I've always wanted to be a singer!"

On to John Ruskin - a bit of a hero of mine, and not just because he lived in an ugly house with a stunning view of Coniston in the Lake District. He could paint and write and think - Tolstoy described him as "one of those rare men who think with their hearts" - and he was an all-round Good Egg and if he was still alive and in charge of Everything then Britain would be a better place.

Here's what he said:

When love and skill come together, expect a masterpiece.

Simple; and spot-on, Mr Ruskin.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Just Saying No

For about nine years the actors with whom I work have been doing some Highly Skilled Acting for a company which I shall call Boggins United Utilities.

The company - which isn't called Boggins United Utilities in any way but I can't tell you what it is called - then decided to remodel their project, which I shall call Boggins United Utilities Super Project, which had involved some Highly Skilled Acting.

Hope you're following.

The Boggins Bigwigs decided that a good way to save money would be to get rid of the Highly Skilled Acting part of Boggins United Utilities Super Project. So, in their remodelled project, there was no money provided to employ actors.

Then all those involved with the Super Project said hey, wait a minute, the Highly Skilled Acting part is the most important bit - that's the bit that tells us everything we need to know.

Oh dear, said the Boggins Bigwigs, surely this Highly Skilled Acting bit isn't that difficult? Let's get our Boggins United Utilities Sales Team to do the Highly Skilled Acting instead.

They asked the Sales Team.

The Sales Team said no, get lost, no way are we doing that, ewwwwww no, forget it, no chance, never in a million years, rearrange this well-known phrase or saying, Off Piss.

So the Boggins Bigwigs Representative rang me and offered our actors the job back again, but unfortunately they hadn't budgeted for it, so would we do it for about two thirds of the previous fee, please?

And, since the previous fee wasn't that high to start with, and since I knew the actors would back me, I just said NO.

"But the first day of it's next Monday!" said the Boggins Bigwigs Rep.

"Oh dear, I know," said I.

"And they just haven't budgeted for actors, which is why there's not much money," said BBR.

"I know, what a shame," I said.

"And I've got to find some by next week. And yours are the only ones who know the Highly Skilled Acting bit of it all."

"Yes, I know," I said. "You've been put in a really difficult position."

"Is there any area at all where we could compromise?"

"No, I'm afraid not," I said sweetly. "Our actors simply can't afford to do it for that money." (And that, by the way, is TRUE).

She rang back, the next day, to say that they will do it under our previous fees and expenses conditions, and could I please hurry up and find some actors to do it?

So I did.

But it really annoys me, firstly, that the Highly Skilled Acting part of it was regarded by the Bigwigs as so easy that anyone could do it. D'you know what, that's because our actors make it look easy!

And, secondly, it infuriates me that they seem to think actors are doing it as a kind of hobby and don't need to be paid properly.

And thirdly, I have heavily disguised what it's all about, of course. And it's about something really important. And the Top Brass seem to have made an arbitrary and ill-thought-through decision to drop the one bit that everyone has always said is crucial.

How do these people get to be in positions of power?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008


I just added the line about knowing how people feel as a kind of dramatic flourish at the end of my last post, without thinking too much about it. I've often been told that I seem to know how people feel, particularly if they're feeling any kind of distress, and I do think it's often true.

And then Dizzy kindly asked, in a comment, how I'm feeling.

Well, it's very hard to say. It's been a strange year. First of all The Communist was taken to hospital in June and it seemed for quite a while as though he might die. I felt a strange, shaky feeling all the time, right up until after he'd had his leg amputated in October and they took him off most of the drugs and he became much more like his old self, only with just one leg.

Now the shaky feeling about him has stopped: he's in the nursing home and I suppose I've adjusted to the fact that he won't come home again permanently, and things will never be the same as they were before June.

Then, on February 16th, Emily and Gareth got married in what was one of the most enjoyable, loveliest weddings in the whole world ever.

And then, a week and a day later, my cousin Robert died of cancer, and last Friday was his funeral.

So, how do I feel, in the middle of all this happiness and sadness?

I feel that my emotions - never far from the surface - are nearer the surface than usual. I feel grateful to all those who've been there for me and helped me through it all. I want to tell them all how great they are. I feel very tired - but that's because I've been working much too hard, so I'm going to try to cut down somewhat.

I feel a strong sense of how precious is life, and how we should make the most of it, and I feel that the line at the top of this blog "Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think" is so very true.

So - although I enjoy all the work I do - I'm planning to have a bit more fun in future.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Knowing Stuff

I can blag my way through on just about any topic, and I'm not sure that I like it.

I've got the kind of mind that tends to remember things about things. Doesn't matter what. If you start talking about, say, Somersetshire Cheese, I'll remember that I once read an article that said it had pink spots on its rind. I will pick exactly the right moment in the conversation to drop in this startling fact, and everyone will think I know all about Somersetshire Cheese. They will never realise it was the one fact that I knew, because I'm good at looking knowledgeable.

This ability gets me quite a long way in all sorts of situations: but it doesn't always please me.

I find myself wondering - - what, actually, DO I know about?

Yes, yes, turning frogspawn into frogs, I'm always going on about it, I know. To this I have recently added How To Hand-Feed Waxworms to Leopard Geckos During an Earthquake.

I know quite a lot about Shakespeare and his plays, but not anywhere near as much as anyone who really knows about Shakespeare and his plays. I know quite a lot about other plays too: but not as much as you'd think from my ability to blag about it.

I know a lot about how difficult actors' lives can be, and how the glamour of Showbiz is much overrated. I can spot a good actor - or a bad one! - after he or she's said less than half a line.

If I see a production of a play, I know what's good and what's bad about it - in my opinion, anyway (though I'm always right, of course, at least on this blog).

I know lots about spelling! Yippee! Mind you, so does a spell-checker, so my spelling skills are not as useful as they used to be.

I know a lot about the use of roleplay to teach all kinds of healthcare workers, and I think my greatest strength here is my ability to give feedback both in role and as myself - it's the teaching part of it that really interests me.

And I know a bit about lots of other things. But it's only a bit, I'm telling you now. I'm just highly skilled at maximising a bit of knowledge.

Oh - - - and I often - quite often, very often - know how people are feeling.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Not Where Two Rivers Meet

Where Two Rivers Meet - - ah, what an evocative title. Rowing boats and water voles. Summer meadows full of buttercups. The distant splashing of oars. Picnics and shady woodlands. Ducks quacking.

Unfortunately, that's not where I was today. I was Where Two Motorways Meet. Entirely different.

I was on my way back from doing some work with medical students in Hull: I was at Ferrybridge Services.

I called in there because there were traffic jams ahead of me - so the radio told me - so I thought I'd stop there and eat until the traffic cleared.

I've had problems with Ferrybridge before. They're at the junction of the M62 and the A1 and as soon as I pulled off the M62 I remembered that I'd done something horribly wrong last time, but I couldn't remember what it was.

Then I did it again.

There's a huge roundabout, and the services are one of the turnings off it. So I drove round the roundabout peering at every sign as I passed - one wrong move here and you're in London, or Manchester, or back in Hull - and I found the sign for Services.

But as soon as you turn down it there's a tiny picture of the world's smallest motor car to the left, which I drove past thinking to myself hey, that must be the world's smallest motor car.

Just as I did last time. For if you happen to be in a motor car yourself - and I was - you have to turn left immediately - like I didn't - or you end up in an impenetrable mass of huge lorries driven by men eating Yorkie bars - like I did.

And can you get from the lorry park to the car park? No, you cannot. You have to go out again and round the huge roundabout, peering at every sign - - yes, it was Groundhog Day.

I'm telling you now, to save me the trouble of doing it later, that I'll do this next time too. I don't learn things like that. I don't do that spatial-relations stuff (careful now).

But still, when I got there it was a delight.

Oh, you know already that it wasn't. It was this:

Almost deserted, all the hot food dried up and with a feeling of last-chance-saloon about it. It was the Service Station at the End of the Universe, all right.

Still the traffic had cleared by the time I left and I did just a couple more circuits of the big roundabout for old times' sake before taking the correct turning for Leeds. The sign above me said "Gritting". I think when people say "I love to travel" they possibly don't mean the kind of stuff that I do.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

The Communist Escapes

The poor Communist hasn't had much of a mention on this blog recently. He was taken into hospital from the nursing home in early January and had languished there ever since, while they did test after test which all came up negative. Some of the tests seemed to be exactly the same ones that they'd done in the other Leeds hospital - there doesn't seem to be much communication between the two.

We could never find out why he was still there or what they were doing: there never seemed to be anyone about who knew.

Finally some deeply stupid person made the mistake of asking him where he wanted to go when he left hospital.

Now, whilst he was in hospital we were continuing to pay for the nursing home, to keep his place, at the astronomical £590 per week. He needs twenty-four hour care: he can't move much: he needs to be turned twice every night: to get him from the bed to a chair, say, takes two nurses and a hoist.

So my soon-to-be-eighty-four five-feet-tall mother wouldn't have much of a chance of looking after him, really: and I certainly couldn't cope on my own either.

But when asked "Where would you like to go?", the Communist took it to be one of the following options:

1) Would you like to have two legs and be twenty-four again and go home?


2) Would you like to be eighty-four with one leg missing and go to live in a nursing home full of ancient people with senile dementia?

The Communist, not surprisingly, came down rather hard in favour of Option 1. And then, when another medical professional pointed out that Option 1 wasn't entirely realistic, he got very upset, and remained that way for about a week, whilst the hospital staff wondered what to do about it and told us repeatedly that unfortunately there were no doctors about at the moment and failed to discharge him.

Just as I thought I was going to have to go in there and stamp my foot and blow my top, a very strange thing happened.

My mother did it for me.

She went to visit him one afternoon and asked why he was still in hospital.

"I'm not sure," said the nurse, "and there aren't any doctors about at the moment. We'll try to find one to talk to you tomorrow."

And my mother went ballistic and jumped straight into a quotation from Macbeth.

"Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow!" she yelled. "That's all you ever say! You've been saying it for a fortnight and meanwhile my husband's stuck in here getting more and more depressed and it's a nightmare to visit him because of parking the car. I want you to LET HIM OUT and I want it NOW!"

And they did. By later on that same evening he was back in the nursing home.

My mother was rather smug, and I was Very pleased with her.

It's not ideal, of course, and he still has not accepted that he can't come home for good. But at least he likes the food, and can wear his own clothes, and the staff are kind and friendly. It's the best of some grim alternatives, for the moment.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

The Carnival is Over

I remember this song from when I was very - VERY - young. I have always loved Judith Durham's voice. I remember her as being impossibly grown-up and impossibly beautiful - and, looking at this video, she's really not either of those: she looks very young to me now. Sighhhhh.

I looked at her website with its somewhat overwritten home page and was pleased to learn that her real name was Judy Cock. No idea why she changed it.

Anyway, I still love her voice, and I still love this song.

On the Way to the Funeral

The weather was so sunny and tranquil when we were last in Barrow-in-Furness, collecting the cake on the way to Emily and Gareth's wedding. This time, a mere fortnight later, as we arrived for Robert's funeral, the weather decided to mirror our feelings about Robert's death. It blew a howling gale so strong that when we reached the crematorium we had to use Chris - delightful and incredibly tall boyfriend of cousin Joanna - as a windbreak to stop my mother and Amy being blown away.

It wasn't an easy journey from Amy's house to the crematorium - but that wasn't primarily because of either the grief or the weather.

It was because, in a glorious illustration of black humour, both my mother and Amy were giving me conflicting directions.

To put it in context, my mother lived in Barrow until she was eighteen and left to go to university. But the crematorium's quite near where she used to live on Victoria Avenue and therefore she was quite convinced she knew the best way.

Amy, on the other hand, has lived in Barrow all her life. It's not that big, Barrow, and there are many ways you can go to get to the same place.

Add to this the facts that my mother was in the back, Amy in the front, and that they are both pretty deaf - they will both be eighty-four in April, after all - and they have both got quiet voices - and it was a recipe for - well, I'm not sure what. Black comedy is probably the nearest.

"Right at the next lights," says Amy.

"At the next lights, turn left," says Mum. - - Oh yes, and another thing. My mother really doesn't know her left from her right. Especially when she's feeling a bit churned up.

So I turned right.

"Third on the left, now," says Amy. "Or it might be the second."

"Daphne! Daphne!" shouts Mum, from the back seat, "You've gone the wrong way! You should have gone left - - sorry, right - - no, left - - "

"It could be this one," says Amy.

"Shall I turn down it, then?" I ask,

"Well, you could do," says Amy - - "but then again the next one will do just as well."

She's a generous soul, Amy, and her usual response to frenzied cries of "Which way?" is a kindly "Either."

"WRONG WAY!" shouts my mother. "You want to go up Victoria Avenue! NOT THAT WAY!"

I take the next on the left. It has speed bumps.

"WATCH OUT! SPEED BUMPS!" shouts my mother, to whom anything new is a cause of panic.

The gates of the crematorium appear in front of us.

"Here we are," says Amy.

"This isn't the way in," said my mother, because it didn't used to be.

I drive through the gates.

"Straight on," says Amy.

"Turn round, quickly!" says my mother.

In my imagination, sitting on the back seat, next to my mother, is Robert - Amy's son - dead - about to be cremated. And he is laughing, and laughing, and laughing.