Friday, December 31, 2010

Lily Fisher and the Gonk

When I was little, The Communist had a business partner called Ronnie Fisher. The Communist's name was Ronnie, too, so they were in fact an earlier version of the two Ronnies.

Ronnie Fisher died when I was still quite small but his name came in useful for years when pushy sales reps were trying to get The Communist to buy things he didn't want to stock in his chemist shop.

"I'm sorry, but I'll have to consult my partner, Mr Fisher, and he's not here at the moment."

I don't remember much about Ronnie Fisher except he used to smoke a pipe and I loved the smell of the smoke. I remember him being very tall - - but then, everybody used to be tall when I was little. And, let's face it, most of them still are.

Ronnie Fisher was married to a lady called Lily and they had two sons called Harvey and Raymond who always seemed to be doing boy-scouty-type things. They were much older than I was.

I think Lily must have wanted a daughter too, as she was always very nice to me. One day, when I was about ten, she offered to take me to town to buy me a gonk for Christmas. Of course, I called her "Aunty Lily" - all grown-ups were called aunties and uncles in those days.

If you weren't a child of the Sixties, you are probably wondering "What's a gonk?" Ahhh, you poor things. A gonk was the Sixties must-have cuddly toy - - it was basically an egg-shaped creature made of cloth, or sometimes knitted, with little arms and legs. Like Humpty Dumpty. In fact the world's most famous gonk was probably Humpty on Play School on television.

So, off I went to town with Lily Fisher. I remember her as being much smaller than Ronnie, and I don't remember much else about her - but if I saw a photo of her at that time, I know I would recognise her straight away.

Usually, when I went to town with a grown-up, it was on some kind of grown-uppy shopping expedition to buy dull things like socks and school uniform. My mother hated shopping as much as I did so would wait until there was a whole, huge pile of Very Dull Things Indeed that needed to be bought. We would trail round town for hours. Weeks. Decades. Until finally we had bought all the Very Dull Things, or until we could stand it no more and we went home.

Usually I was so bored that I would fall asleep on the bus on the way home and I deeply resented being woken up and having to walk the hundred yards or so back to our house.

This expedition with Lily Fisher was different. The sole purpose - the SOLE PURPOSE! of this trip was to buy me a gonk. Heaven!

So we looked around several Gonk-Selling Shops, discussing the merits of gonks of different sizes, and the fabrics that they were made of, and the expressions on their faces (always vital to me on any of my large and important collection of dolls and cuddly toys).

Finally, after some time, we found a gonk that I liked. And then it was time for tea in the cafe in Schofields, which was a large and fraightfully refained Department Store. Sandwiches and a bun and a drink of milk in the optimistic days of the mid-Sixties, with some great pop music (that I never heard at home) playing in the cafe! Hurrah! My cup runneth over, all right, I thought: though probably not in those exact words.

Lily Fisher died years ago. I wonder whether she ever knew what an afternoon of bliss she gave me, and how much I loved the gonk she bought me. I hope she did.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Christmas Food and Three Extra Pounds

"Christmas Cake - - One of your Five a Day!"

In an ideal world, there would be Government posters advertising this kind of thing.

"Apple and Blackberry Crumble? Two of your Five a Day! Eat Two and a Half Portions for Ideal Nutrition!"

Sadly it's not an ideal world.

I've put on three pounds over Christmas and it's all my own fault. Okay, and it's Park Hotel's fault for providing food that I like so much.

It's not that I haven't eaten healthy food: here's some healthy porridge, just like I have at home:

Except at home I don't have cream on it. Which probably isn't too healthy. But oh! it was delicious!

And I was very good, only had the full English breakfast on one of the days - - - though actually, this was partly because I'd never have been able to manage it. In the summer when I'm in Tenby I will have a long evening walk after dinner and then a half-mile swim in the pool before breakfast - - but since the pool is open-air and was frozen, and it was too snowy and slippery to walk after dark, I couldn't do that on this visit.

So I just wasn't hungry enough for a fried breakfast: so for breakfast on most days, after the porridge, I had this: it's called Fruit Platter and I wish someone would plonk such a thing in front of me for breakfast at home:

Luckily I love fruit and sometimes at dinner there was a fruity starter which was always good:

And my Christmas Dinner main course had lots of vegetables in it:

Peas! Cauliflower! Sprouts! Carrots! Parsnips! Potatoes! And surely cranberry sauce must count as a vegetable? Of course, the cauliflower was in a rich and delicious cheese sauce. And the sprouts had bits of bacon and croutons on them, just to slip in some extra calories. (I love sprouts. Yes, I know you may think that's weird).

Of course, after that lot I then said to my self, in an interesting burst of self-delusion: "Diabetic? Me? Not on Christmas Day, surely!" and ate Christmas pudding with brandy sauce - - and I loved it, sighhhh.

Of course, I could lie to you and say that's a small portion - - but it wasn't. Those bowls are enormous! On another day I had Bailey's Cheesecake which was one of the most delicious things I've ever eaten and probably contained enough calories to stretch to the Moon and back. Did I take a photo of it? No. Too busy attacking it with my spoon!

However, I didn't drink any alcohol - water or diet Coke was my drink of choice. And we did walk a lot round Tenby. But it's easy to see where those three pounds have come from and I am just grateful it wasn't more.

I know I was very lucky to have all this delicious food put in front of me this Christmas. I can't say that I missed getting up early to put the turkey in the oven. I don't regret all the food that I ate: it was fantastic. I'm sorry that I am three pounds heavier and I'd better get set to swim them off, but I loved every moment of my Christmas food.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Some Places are More Equal than Others

Although all parts of Great Britain are supposed to be of equal importance, it's not the case: some parts are more equal than others.

When we first moved in to this house, in 1959, when you turned the taps on the water would rush out with a merry Pshhhhhh! sound.

Over the years the water pressure has decreased tremendously - a combination of new houses being built and old pipes leaking, is my best guess.

At the moment, no doubt because of burst pipes all over Yorkshire, the pressure's really low - our shower is more like a trickle. But at least we HAVE water.

Over in Northern Ireland, the prolonged freezing weather has caused very many burst pipes - you can read more about it here. Forty-two thousand people, many of them in Belfast, are currently without mains water and some have been without it for over a week.

Northern Ireland Water have a somewhat defensive piece about it on their website. When giving an explanation as to why there's not more water in the reservoirs, they have a sudden outbreak of block capitals so as to dump the blame elsewhere:

This story has not really featured in the news until today. Why? Because it's in distant Northern Ireland, way across the sea, a lot of miles to the left, and we don't hear much about it in the Media really, now there aren't Troubles like there used to be.

If more than forty thousand people had been left without water in London, then a state of national emergency would have been declared. Politicians would have been visiting all over the place and trying to look compassionate, and Santa Claus would be recalled from Lapland and asked to do his whole present-run again after everything's back to normal.

It reminds me of an incident that happened in the 1980s. The coastal town of Ravenglass in Cumbria is near the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant. The sand and silt from the beach in Ravenglass was somewhat radioactive because of the plant, though it was fine for little Cumbrian children to play in it, of course, and nobody in Parliament minded at all about that.

So some protesters got a bucket of the stuff and took it to Whitehall in London, and then explained what it was and where it had come from. Suddenly half of London was sealed off and the mud was treated as low-level radioactive waste. Double standard or what?

Here, up North in Leeds we often feel that the country is run in a very London-centred way. But that's nothing to how things are further away from London. Sorry, Northern Ireland.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Morning Light, Christmas Day

There are glorious views across Tenby from Park Hotel because it's up high on the North Cliff.

I never tire of looking at all the different kinds of light on the sea and on Christmas Day morning it was particularly spectacular.

Mist just above the sea: (and you can click on all of these to make them larger)

Sunrise over the sea:

Red sky over Caldey Island in the distance:

I think my favourite is the one below, though - the combination of the light, the sea and the snow-covered roofs all looks like something from a fairytale.

I'm back in the real world now. I'd better go and put on another load of washing.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Dream Verse

When we first used to go to Tenby, when I was nine, we used to go for two weeks.

I would have a fantastic time during the first week, but the second week was always slightly marred by the fact that I would burst into tears several times a day because I didn't want to go home.

I still feel that way, I must say!

We had a really fantastic Christmas there - just what we all needed after a year that's been very difficult in some ways. Very grateful thanks to Roger and Elizabeth Howells, Kt Morgan, and all the staff of Park Hotel, who are both very efficient and delightfully friendly too.

Now then. I've mentioned before on this blog that very occasionally I dream in verse. This morning I woke up with a limerick, completely formed in my head, said it out loud to Stephen and immediately wrote it down before it vanished in that way that dreams do.

I can see some of the sources of it - - - I work with actors, of course, and they do a lot of improvisation and devised work. Yesterday we passed the Pembrokeshire Pie Shop in Tenby and had a conversation about pies.

And I woke up with this!

"An actor who's good at devising
Was asked to do something surprising.
With his body alone
He enacted a phone
And a horse; and an oven with pies in."

Now I'd never had thought of that whilst conscious. I think I must be more clever asleep than awake. (Ohh, I do leave myself wide open, don't I?)

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Fortieth Tenby Boxing Day Swim,

Ever since I first heard about the Boxing Day swim in Tenby I'd wanted to do it. It had happened every year for thirty-nine years. Then, the first year that we've actually been in Tenby for Boxing Day, it was, of course, the coldest it's been for years.

I kept waking up last night and worrying about it slightly. What if it really was too cold for me? I knew it wasn't so much as a swim as a mad dash into, and then out of, the sea, because in general it's cold, and this has been the coldest December for a hundred years so it would be actually dangerous to stay in for much time at all.

But finally I thought - - ohhh look, give it a go, woman, you know you want to!

As we walked down to the swim site on North Beach there were some people already there and it did look distinctly chilly what with the snow on the ground! And today was a grey, cloudy day, without the stunning sunshine of the past few days.

When we arrived there it was all very well-organised, with a man with a loudspeaker telling us all what to do and how long there was to go until the swim started at half past eleven.

There were hundreds of swimmers, very many of them in fancy dress. The prevailing theme was red - - there were a couple of dragons made of several people joined by lots of red material, and lots of Father Christmases and Father Christmas's Little Helpers, and several Red Indians and a pack of cards. The Mayor of Tenby was there. It was an Event with a capital E!
I realised that I needed to cool down a bit before going into the water. The compere kept saying cheerfully that the air temperature was three degrees Centigrade, whereas the sea was eight point nine degrees "So why not go into the sea to warm up?"

I decided against wearing my wetsuit, although many were in wetsuits - I just wanted to try it in my swimsuit! I'd already put my swimsuit on, back at the hotel, so I took off all my several layers of clothes, and my socks, and my boots, and stood there barefoot on the snow-covered sand.

So many hundreds of times have I stood on that beach ready to swim in the sea! So as we moved nearer to the waves, ready for the countdown, I kept saying to myself "HOT JULY DAY!" It did work to some extent - - most of me was fine but my feet really did NOT like standing on the snow!

And then we all counted down - - - ten nine eight seven six - - and then when we got to zero we all ran towards the sea.

Fortunately, there were large waves so I never had to make that decision to duck under the water - the water came up and swept over me.

It was, of course, the coldest water I have ever been in. Most people ran in and then ran straight out again but I was determined to stay in for at least a few strokes, and when I looked up again most people were already out of the sea!

Here they are all rushing out again: (thanks to Stephen who was on Photographer Duty, amongst other things!)
But by now I'd adjusted to the temperature and I wanted to stay in longer - - but I knew it was a bad idea so I came out!

As I ran out a lady stopped me and said "Well done! Great to see you've done it!" I felt a real buzz!

Now you don't often find photos of me on my blog, let alone in a swimsuit - - but, just in case you think I'm making it all up - - here I am, immediately after the event. I promise not to shock you with such pictures often. Yes, that is snow, since you ask.

Did I enjoy it? You bet, I loved it. If I'm ever here in Tenby at Christmas - and I'd really like to be - I'll be doing it again.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Day in Tenby

"Was this wise? - - - No!" said the elderly gentleman cheerfully, answering his own question as he picked his way along the icy path on the headland above Tenby.

It was our second walk of the day. At the hotel we've had breakfast, then coffee, then a visit from Santa Claus (he had a strong Welsh accent), then delicious punch (orange juice, cider, rum, brandy - - and I hardly ever drink!), then Christmas lunch with turkey and everything you might expect and more, and some hours later, dinner (we had lamb).

In between all this feasting we went for two long walks round Tenby. It's been another not-a-cloud-in-the-sky day and in the early morning, looking right across the bay from the hotel, we could see mist above the sea: this is on full zoom on my camera:

We decided to go down the cliff path to see if we could do it without breaking any limbs. Luckily, we could! It zig-zags down the cliff but had less snow than most places as the trees shelter it. I kept thinking of all the hundreds of times I've been up and down that path during the past forty-five years, though usually in hot July temperatures. As a child, I often ran it, barefoot.

When we reached the bottom of the path the tide had gone out just far enough to let us walk along the beach. On the seafront, there didn't seem to be much demand for deckchairs:

The light and the water made wonderful patterns on the beach: this is the newish (2005) lifeboat station:

In the evening when we returned to Park Hotel after our second walk of the day, there was a lovely pink light in the sky - the sun was by now well below the horizon.

I took this photo on full zoom with very little light and no tripod - - for I am a bit of a Human Tripod and have always been able to hold the camera steady in this way!

You could perhaps count it a skill - - but the real reason is probably that I have such slow reactions that I don't really notice the click till it's finished clicking!

You can click on these photos to enlarge them if you wish.

It's been a wonderful day and my mother is still in the ballroom, dancing the night away.

I've missed seeing Olli and Gareth today (they are at Gareth's parents' in Gloucestershire and sounded really happy). Of course, I've missed the Communist: he loved Christmas.

But, as I said, it's been a wonderful day. Hurrah for Tenby and grateful thanks to all the fantastic staff at Park Hotel.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Sand and Snow and a very Merry Christmas to all

Ahh yes, this is how I remember Florida. Palm trees. Sunshine. White sand.

Actually this is Tenby, Pembrokeshire, South Wales, Great Britain, today, Christmas Eve 2010. The white at the foot of the tree is, of course, snow. (I liked Jan Blawat's comment on my post of yesterday about how we're like palm trees - thank you!)

Tenby has been at its stunning best today. It's very slippy underfoot so we had to take a lot of care, but Stephen and I wandered all around Tenby this morning.

Here's the Goscar Rock on North Beach:

Here's the middle beach of Tenby's three beaches, St Catherine's Beach:

Here's the glorious long strip of golden sand that is South Beach, with Caldey Island in the distance:

The last few weeks have been really difficult and I haven't even dared to look forward to this little holiday, because the weather's been so bad that I didn't think we'd ever get here.

But, as it has done every time we've visited - at least once a year since 1966! - Tenby is working its magic.

The air is cold and clear and from North Beach this morning we could see Worm's Head clearly in the distance - it's about forty miles round the coast. I've wanted to visit it for years and years and this year Silverback and I were there in May, on the first really hot and gloriously sunny day of the year. So I always think of that visit when I see it across from Tenby now - - and it was so strange to see it covered in sparkling snow this morning!

What a glorious place this is to spend Christmas.

Wherever you are tomorrow, I hope you will have a lovely time.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Palm Trees in the Snow

Usually we travel to Tenby through North Wales. M62 to round about Manchester, then into the beautiful mountain scenery - - Bala - - Machynlleth - - Aberystwyth - - Cardigan - - and then the drive through rolling countryside to Tenby.

Today we couldn't do that - North Wales has a liberal coating of snow and the chances of getting along those stunning mountain roads were hovering around nil.

So it was down the M1 and then the A42, M42, M5, then across the Severn Bridge into Wales and past Newport, Cardiff, Port Talbot and Swansea along the South Wales Coast.

It isn't the most interesting of routes. There was snow all the way and luckily the traffic was very light and the roads were clear. But I far prefer our lovely mountain roads.

When we arrived in Tenby, it was like everything familiar had suddenly changed. The view from Park Hotel is still beautiful - but covered in snow!

Tenby just isn't used to snow - it is extremely rare here. The hotel is up on North Cliff and the road up to it is very snowy and slippy, though we got the car up with no problem. The owner of the hotel asked the council if they could come and grit it. "Ahhhh well", they said, "Pembrokeshire only has two gritting lorries. We don't usually need them."

The hotel still has its lovely summer smell which I think is a mixture of furniture polish and very clean, fresh air. The climate here is usually mild and there are palm trees everywhere.

The hotel is beautifully decorated for Christmas with Christmas trees, holly wreaths and fairy lights everywhere - it really does look wonderfully warm and welcoming, and dinner tonight was lovely.

But - - all this food! Usually in between the huge dinner and the huge breakfast, I have a walk of three or four miles in the evening and then a swim of half a mile or so in the hotel's outdoor pool before breakfast.

The pool is frozen and there's snow all over the sun-loungers. No swallows swooping over the sea: no bats flying amongst the trees on the cliff. No long summer evenings to wander along the beaches.

It's Tenby, Jim, though not as we know it.

Still wonderful though, and we plan to make the most of our time here. I hope to show you some photos soon.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

So Here It Is - - -

A little while ago I didn't post for a few days as I was feeling very stressed and thoroughly shaken.

Now I can tell you the reason and that it's that Stephen will be made redundant from mid-January.

In 1986 he joined a solid Yorkshire company that treated its employees really well. However, over the years they were bought out several times, finally by a foreign company. To cut a long story short, they have decided to move all their IT back to Johnny Foreignerland.

Because they're not the company he originally worked for, they don't have any emotional investment in him: the fact that he's worked for the company in a crucial role for fourteen years and has not even had a day off sick in the past ten years just doesn't mean much to them.

So they're paying the statutory minimum redundancy pay which is a week's salary for every year he's worked there (but capped at much less than his actual pay) plus pay in lieu of notice.

Of course, he's not alone in being made redundant at the moment, but I'm not alone in thinking he's been treated very badly - I shan't bother you with the tedious details but we're very grateful to his old boss there who's been fighting his corner very hard!

He has applied for a couple of other jobs so we'll see what happens but it has been SUCH a stressful time. He's extremely skilled in his field and lots of people have said that they think he'll be fine.

I know that we've been fortunate: in the thirty years since Stephen graduated he has only worked for two companies and has never been out of work. However, that's partly because he's brilliant at what he does. Half Man Half Computer. Top Geek.

I can hear The Communist now - I know what he'd have said about the way some employers treat their workers!

Another thing that I haven't mentioned in this blog, as I have found it impossibly hard to get my head round it, is that Stephen's mother died this year and nobody in the family told us "We thought you'd know"! She lived in Norfolk, 250 miles away, so unless someone told us, we wouldn't know. I didn't find out she had died until after several failed attempts to contact her. We missed her funeral, of course. I find I'm still shaking my head in bewilderment whilst writing this.

So first that for Stephen, and now this.

We're going off to Tenby for Christmas with my mother and we're going to try and put it all to one side for a few days and have a good time. I am going to count my blessings, and there are plenty of them - I have a loving family, great friends, work that I love and we've had some wonderful holidays in the past few years too.

I hope that everyone reading this will have a wonderful Christmas, though I hope to be able to blog from Tenby whilst I'm there. Thank you for reading this blog - it means a lot to me that you do.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Thrift

My appointment at the dentist's was at half-past eight this morning.

It was minus ten degrees Centigrade. I walked there as it's less than ten minutes' walk, but by the time I got there my face was hurting with the cold. The sky looked pretty so I took a photo with my phone.

As you can see, on the right of the photo is a building that's having some work done on it. As I passed it, I saw the faded letters on the side.

THE THRIFT, is what it used to say.

I remember it well. The Thrift was a kind of forerunner of the supermarket. In the 1960s we still lived where I live now - just round the corner. Next to the Thrift was a little butcher's shop - the best one, we thought, though if you didn't like it there was another one about a hundred and fifty yards away.

There were lots of corner shops then. Across the road in my top photo, by the car, was Perrin's the greengrocer's - they were always friendly there. Now it's a house, not a shop. The building that is now the dentist's was Cawdron's - another grocer's. Across the road from it was the Post Office - again, now a house, not a shop. At the next corner was Jones's the draper's. About three hundred yards down the road in the top photo, on a corner, was another grocer's, my favourite, and next to it was a cobbler's. Just along the road was a parade of shops (I still call it a "parade") with the newsagent's and Turnbull's the baker's. There were, in fact, corner shops on almost every corner.

The Thrift was very unusual for those days in that you wandered around and helped yourself and put your purchases in a wire basket. They sold all kinds of grocery items - and some fruit and vegetables too - though we didn't buy fruit and veg from The Thrift - why would you when there was a greengrocer's across the road?

My mother didn't like The Thrift much, but my grandmother - who lived with us - seemed to love it and spent a lot of time shopping there.

I had a childhood of corner shops. "Daphne, could you just nip to the butcher's and get a pound of mince? And could you call in at Perrin's for some bananas?"

For bigger orders, the greengrocer's lad would come round on his bike with all your fruit and veg in a basket.

On my way to the corner shop, quite often I'd meet one of my friends on the way, on a similar errand or just out for a ride on her bike. The ten-minute errand could stretch out for half the afternoon and include a lot of conversation and some hopscotch or skipping.

Eventually, something happened that was to change it all for ever. Safeway the supermarket opened at Oakwood, about a mile away. Goodbye, corner shops. I miss you.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Different Kind of Cold

For those not currently in Britain, I'd just like to say that this is a different kind of cold from the winter cold we're used to.

British cold in winter, certainly in my lifetime, has generally been a damp, drizzly kind of cold. Sometimes it tips over into sleet and sometimes it's turned into snow. But it's always been damp.

This current cold makes you gasp when you open the back door. Your breath swirls round you in big clouds. The light covering of snow that we currently have here is the texture of icing-sugar.

All the small birds are completely round as they fluff up their feathers to keep warm. I hadn't seen this phenomenon for years, until last winter. Quite how they survive these very cold nights I'm not sure but they do seem to be back on the bird feeders in the morning.

Even Olli and Gareth's cat Wendy, who normally spends her time rushing up trees and beating up magpies, won't stay outside for more than half an hour. Froggie, our other cat, who's elderly now, hasn't set foot outside for days and spends most of her time on the windowsill above the radiator so she can watch Outside without ever having to go there.

It's cold, Jim, but not as we know it. I feel I have enjoyed it enough and I don't want to make further acquaintance with it. Bring me sunshine. The warm kind. And daffodils. Thank you.

Downton Abbey and From Time to Time

Some weeks later than everyone else, I've been watching Downton Abbey, which was on British television in October/November.

I take a long time to get round to seeing things. For example, I watched ET last night for the first time ever (brilliant film, though I cried a lot, obviously).

Downton Abbey is a costume drama set just before the First World War. It's like one of those adaptations of a period novel that television does so well - - - except it isn't. It's written by Julian Fellowes and is completely new.

It had massive viewing figures when it was shown and I can see why. It's a lavishly-costumed answer to the highly-successful (ohhh I loved it) Seventies television series Upstairs Downstairs. Julian Fellowes has clearly researched everything that went on in 1912, including the sinking of the Titanic, and stirred it all together to make a gripping mishmash of elegant ladies, plotting servants, period detail and all topped off with Maggie Smith doing her excellent turn as Snotty Upper-Class Cow.

So it has the look and feel of a classy adaptation of a great novel - - but it's not. It's a Coronation Street of an earlier period. It's a very classy soap. Now I know that many people are dismissive of soaps but some soap writing is brilliant and some soap acting is also brilliant. Downton Abbey is not, perhaps, great drama - but it's so enjoyable! It's well-written, well-acted and great fun to watch.

Julian Fellowes recently wrote and directed the feature film From Time to Time, which was an adaptation from the Lucy Boston novel The Chimneys of Green Knowe.

Like Downton Abbey, it also stars Maggie Smith and the splendid Hugh Bonneville. For some reason which I don't understand, it hasn't been on national release. However, it is on television on Boxing Day, at 2.20pm on ITV. And our actress Helen Kennedy is in it as the nanny Nellie. Do watch it if you can!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Progress in Health and Safety

My mother always used to enjoy chatting to families with children in the pool. As an experienced swimming teacher, she would watch the little ones swim and give them encouragement.

Now, of course, thanks to the Council's directive that no solo adult swimmers can swim at the same time as families, my mother won't be able to do that any more.

Things weren't like that in the early nineteen-fifties, when she was teaching at a secondary modern school in a deprived part of Leeds.

She was horrified to find that most of the children had never been to the Lake District. So she offered to take a group of them in the school holidays.

So off she went, just my mother and eight eleven-year-olds, to a camp site at the bottom end of Windermere.

My mother had scrounged a big tent from somewhere and they all slept in it.

Her cousin Nancy in Barrow-in-Furness was a cook and brought lots of food down. My mother enlisted various friends of hers to help as well.

They were there for a week. They played a lot of cricket and football at the camp site. They swam in Windermere, and my mother taught them how to dive. She took them walking on the fells.

These days, Health and Safety wouldn't allow any of this. But guess what, all the children were safe and nobody was hurt. They had a brilliant week and I bet that, for some of them, it was the highlight of their childhoods.

Of course, part of the reason that the children were safe was that my mother, who was born in Barrow-in-Furness, had spent much of her childhood exploring the Great Outdoors of the Lake District and therefore knew what was safe and what was not.

So my mother's gone from being in sole charge of a group of eleven-year-olds for a week to, in her eighty-seventh year, not being allowed to be in the pool at the same time as children in case she molests them in some way.

And this is supposed to be progress? Of course we need Health and Safety legislation - - - but far more than that, we need humanity, and we need common sense, and we're in danger of throwing them both into the depths of the lake.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Doctor Who Said Yes

It's a great skill, talking to patients. As with all great skills, the best doctors - or other healthcare professionals - make it look very easy.

To the patient, it should seem like a friendly, though focused, chat. The doctor is - hopefully - information-gathering, possibly diagnosing, and eventually coming to a shared management plan that the patient understands and agrees to.

Near the beginning of the consultation the doctor needs to find out lots of information from the patient. To show they're taking it in, doctors show "active listening" such as nodding, or repeating back what the patient has said in different words.

"It started about three weeks ago," says the patient.

"So, it began towards the end of November?" says the doctor.

That kind of thing.

But it's very easy for doctors (or nurses, or any other healthcare professionals) to get into a habit of saying one thing in reply, whatever the patient says to them.

"So I climbed up the stepladder,"


"and then I balanced on the top,"


"but then I wobbled and crashed to the ground."


There was a nursing student I was working with recently who was a man with a very deep voice. Whatever I said, he immediately said "Okay" but the O bit was a deep, slow rumble from the depths of the Earth. "Ooooooooooooookay".

As it was a roleplay about mental health issues, and as I was baring my soul rather (or the soul of the woman I was playing, anyway), it got VERY tedious after about the seventeenth time.

The example I usually give as to why it's not a good idea to just keep saying the same thing without thinking, is of once when I had a student who said "Brilliant" to everything I said. I was telling her the story of what was going on, finishing with - "and then my mother died."

"Brilliant" said the student, cheerily.

This week I came across The Doctor Who Said Yes.

At some point he had got into the habit of saying "Yes" to anything the patient said. And it wasn't just a quiet, acknowledging kind of "Yes". It was the kind of Yes you say when your team has just beaten their worst rivals by six goals to nil.


Now, this was a practice exam, and I was playing a patient who was asking the doctor to do something illegal - I can't tell you what, but it was the doctor's job to tell me clearly and firmly that it was illegal and he couldn't do it.

But, with The Doctor Who Said Yes, the conversation went a bit like this. And for the purposes of this blog post, I will call the illegal thing The Illegal Thing. Hope that's clear!

"So, would you be able to do this Illegal Thing for me, doctor?"


"Ah, that's great. Could you do it before Christmas?"


"Because it's really important to me. You're definitely willing to do it?"


I just knew he wasnt' listening to what he was saying so I tried a different tack.

"So, that's agreed then. So how are we going to set about it?"

"YESSS - - - no, sorry, what did you say? Oh, no, I'm afraid I can't do it, that would be completely illegal."

"But you've just agreed to it three times."

"Oh no I didn't!"

Well, it being panto season and all that, I was very tempted to go down the "Oh yes you did!" route but I left it to the examiner to explain it to him, in the hope that he won't do it again.

Ohhh, I do love this work. It's never less than fascinating.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Plumber and the Pipe

This morning I turned on the shower and nothing happened. No water.

The cold tap in the bath didn't work either. However, all the other taps did, including the hot tap, so I had a hot bath and then called British Gas as we have a Homecare contract with them, which includes plumbing.

The man who was dealing with plumbing queries was from the Caribbean. He sounded as though he was sitting on a sun-kissed beach sipping a Pina Colada.

I did wonder if it might be a frozen pipe but since the loo was making a strange noise when it flushed I thought it might also be an airlock.

Caribbean Man was very friendly and said he could get someone out to me today. Hurrah! And a couple of hours later the local office rang me to say that someone was on his way.

The man who came looked remarkably like Tyrone from Coronation Street. Short, squat, very friendly and with an alarming amount of what I know is generally referred to as "bum cleavage".

He asked me lots of questions about the plumbing of our bathroom and I didn't know the answers to any of them and anyway I was too busy trying to avoid looking at the bum cleavage.

Our bathroom was put in by Norwood Kitchens and Bathrooms who sadly supplied us with the Bathroom Fitter from Hell and everything in it has been done ever so slightly wrong. That's apart from the bits that were done Very Wrong Indeed and they were redone. We should have made them redo the whole thing but I just couldn't stand it any more.

After a while, Tyrone concluded that Bathroom Fitter from Hell had, for some reason best known to himself, decided to take the pipe bringing cold water to the bath and shower along above the ceiling of the front porch. The more conventional route would have been under the bathroom floor, of course.

So this means that the pipe is more or less outside, having little protection from the cold - - - and the temperature outside was minus 5 degrees Centigrade or less last night. So it had frozen. It's never frozen before so it must have been really REALLY cold.

So off Tyrone went, having left the bath tap on so I would know when the pipe had thawed. He took off the panel from the side of the bath and placed it in the bath, so as to let more heat down to the frozen pipe.

A couple of hours later I heard water flowing and went upstairs to find the bath about to overflow, because Tyrone had left the plug in and I hadn't noticed because the bath panel was on top of it.

So I turned the tap off and plunged my arm into the near-overflowing freezing cold water, and pulled the plug out.

So all was well again - - - until a couple of hours after that when I looked in the room below and found that the overflow from the bath, which wasn't connected properly by Bathroom Fitter from Hell, had plummeted water all over the carpet. Great.

Then I looked in the cellar and found where the water had ended up. Fortunately, because I got to the bath fairly quickly, there wasn't too much of it.

We're leaving the side of the bath off in the hope that warm air will stop it all from freezing up again tonight.

I rather liked Tyrone, though it's a shame he left the plug in. I most certainly didn't like the Bathroom Fitter from Hell - it's ten years since he was in our house and he's still causing problems.

Can someone bring me Spring and a wood full of bluebells? Thank you.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


I haven't blogged for a few days and I know that's not like me.

I have been very busy, helping to train some new Simulated Patients in Leeds for two days and then yesterday going over to Wigan to play a very challenging role for some trainee GPs.

But that's not it. It's that there are some very tricky things going on at the moment, and I can't write about them yet, but they have sent my Worry Level shooting even higher than usual - and, let's face it, it is usually pretty high!

One good thing is that Gareth has been driving an eighteen-ton truck all over Yorkshire delivering festive wine and beer to the pubs of the county! It's really hard work, and I think he's getting on well with it. Great!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Sharks in the Water

Two weeks ago, I was asked to get out of the swimming-pool at half past nine on Sunday morning because of a new rule that adults swimming alone had to leave when family swimming started.

I thought it was ridiculous, and wrote a blog post about it.

I thought it was just some stupid new rule that had been brought in by someone who thought that the adults swimming lengths might somehow crash into the children.

No. It's worse than that. It is, apparently, a Council Health and Safety directive that, from now on, lone adult swimmers can never be in the water at the same time as families with children.

And this, dear reader, is in case there is a plague of paedophiles targeting family swimming as a place to get their kicks on a Sunday morning.

Yes, it really is because of that.

My original problem was that adult swimmers have to get out at half-past nine and so only have an hour's swimming time on a Sunday morning, because the pool doesn't open until half-past eight. This morning I was there on the dot of half-past eight and was quite pleased that I still managed to do my mile before half-past nine, even allowing for a few moments to talk with my friends Jo and Deb about these ridiculous swimming-time changes.

As there have been LOTS of complaints, apparently, after the Christmas break all we dodgy lone adults are going to get an extra half-hour on a Sunday morning before the family swimming starts.

Okay, for me, that helps, though I'd rather have a couple of hours as I want to build up to swimming a mile and a half and that will be a push for me in an hour and a half.

But it's not the point.

Upon exactly WHAT evidence have they decided that Adult Swimmers and Family Swimming must be kept apart? Have they have loads of complaints from parents about lone adults eyeing up their children?

In my experience - and I have been in that pool a LOT - the lone adults just get on with doing what they dragged themselves out of bed to do - and that's swim up and down, looking neither to the left nor to the right. When the families with children arrive, those swimming lengths just keep out of their way.

However, the current opening times have had one effect. There were very few adults there this morning, because they know that unless they get there really early, they won't have much swimming time.

Also, the number of families swimming was exactly the same as last time. One man and his daughter.

So clearly the new times aren't working. Surely they should be encouraging people to swim, rather than putting them off?

The thing that makes me most angry, though, is the presumption that any lone adult - particularly a lone man - is a potential paedophile. I hate the current idea that everyone's a potential bad guy until proved otherwise.

All it takes is a bit of parental responsibility to keep their eyes open for the very, very rare occasions when there might be someone dodgy about. I just don't believe that there's a child-molester behind every corner. I don't want to live in a society that thinks that there is. I'm furious.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Long Sleeves

I've recently worked out why I don't like all this wintry weather we've been having.

I know that it's been horribly cold, and horribly slippery, and that the snow looks vile when it goes all brown and mushy.

But that's not the total extent of what annoys me. It's the long sleeves. I don't like wearing long sleeves in general. When they're under a jumper, I really really don't like it.

When I was in junior school we didn't have to wear uniform every day - it was the swinging Sixties and they'd done away with such things, and I was very glad.

However, I was in the school choir, and from time to time there were school concerts, and for this we had to wear our uniforms.

The uniform was a white shirt, a grey and maroon tie, a grey V-necked jumper with maroon piping round the V and - for girls - a grey pleated skirt. Plus of course white ankle socks and sandals.

I didn't really like any of it but my special hatred was reserved firstly for the tie - I didn't like the feeling of something tight round my throat! - but, more particularly for the shirt.

I just hated - - HATED! - the constriction of wearing a formal shirt under a woolly jumper. I felt as though I couldn't move my arms.

Every school concert I'd get thoroughly upset about it before finally giving in and wearing the wretched outfit.

I suppose, in the end, I grew out of hating it quite so much, because every day in secondary school I had to wear a formal shirt, a tie and a woolly cardigan. I never really liked it - but I did get used to it.

But all my life I have hated constricting, uncomfortable clothes. Sometimes when I see people in a particular fashion which means they can't easily move I think - - WHY? How can you stand it? I have always felt that way about high heels. Fancy never being able to take a step without thinking about it!

But in the recent cold weather it's been long sleeves under a jumper every day. And I don't like it. I've had enough of this winter and it's only December. Roll on Spring.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Nearly Gone - - and a Card

Now it's nearly gone I'm prepared to say that it was all very pretty.

Here are the trees at the front of our house, against a beautiful blue sky.

Okay, that's enough now. Roll on Spring!

The Communist got a Christmas card today from one of the assistants who worked with him in his chemist's shop. She sends one every year, from her, her husband and her children. We don't know her address so sadly can't let her know that he has died.

The Communist retired in 1985, age sixty-two. His shop assistant is still sending him an annual Christmas card, in 2010, twenty-five years later. It was strange to see a card addressed to both my parents after all this time. I think it says a lot about the kind of man he was.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Two Years

It's two years today since the Communist died.

Here he is, with two of his very favourite ladies: my mother on the right and my mum's schoolfriend Amy on the left. 25th June, 2006. Four and a half years ago. Wow. They would all have been eighty-two then.

They were on the little train on the Eskdale to Ravenglass Railway in the Lake District - we were having a delightful holiday at a lovely cottage near Broughton-in-Furness.

I remember taking the photo and thinking, even as I took it - this is both a very ordinary photo, and a very special photo too.

Ordinary, because there'd been hundreds of them taken, together, and with other members of their families, in all sorts of places, throughout their long lives.

Special, because I knew, even then, that it would be one of the last ones of all three of them together, having fun, in a place they loved.

Even at the time, I valued it. Now, of course, I value it even more.

I miss him so much. What would he say to that? "Yes, quite right, so you should."

I can hear him saying it.

I miss him so much.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Communist Constructions

The Communist loved making things out of wood.

He had hands the size of spades. Mine look exactly like his but are - fortunately - at least somewhat smaller. But, like him, I have no natural talent at all for anything requiring artistic or craft skills.

However, he didn't let this stop him. Everything he made was, therefore, huge and very, very solid. If cement could be "brought into the equation" (as he would say) then he was even happier.

When I was a child I had what must have been the heaviest pair of home-made stilts in Yorkshire. It took me about ten minutes and much effort just to lift them and stand them upright. Nevertheless, I did learn to walk on them and when I tried out a friend's shop-bought pair it was like flying in comparison.

Because the bluetits used to peck their way into the milk bottles, the Communist made small hinged chests to keep them in. Merely lifting the lid was a good workout for the milkman.

Our bird table, another of his constructions, is probably thirty years old now. It looks a bit battered, but it's still safe for any passing eagle to land on it. The base is cemented into the soil underneath. At the time of the Iraq war, several people who knew the Communist commented that under the bird table might be the safest place to hide if any Weapons of Mass Destruction were found to be heading towards this part of Leeds.

In his late seventies he was given some old pine headboards and bits of wood from pine beds. He was in seventh heaven and constructed some of the oddest-looking, and certainly heaviest, garden chairs and benches out of them.

And it's there I leave him, for now, on the patio at the back of his new house, in the early years of this century, sitting on the biggest garden bench in Yorkshire, and snoozing in the sunshine.

Friday, December 03, 2010

The Story of the Icicle

I ventured out today, for the first time since Tuesday. Because it's so very cold, the snow has taken on an unusual quality - it's crumbly. Where it's pristine white, it's like icing sugar. Where it's been trodden down, it's like brown sugar.

The cold air really gets your throat after a while. My comprehensive research into what people are wearing (based on my fifteen-minute trip to the newsagent and back) showed that many people are now wearing scarves across their faces. I didn't and came back with my mouth frozen and hardly able to speak. (Silverback, I can hear your thoughts on this.)

Nearly thirty years ago, it was snowy but just above freezing as we set off from the Green Dragon pub in the Yorkshire Dales, to walk round Hardraw Force.

To reach the waterfall - the highest unbroken waterfall in England, no less! - you have to go through the pub, which is old and delightful - do have a look at its website on the link above.

The path towards the falls was above the river, quite narrow in places and you had to tread carefully. It was beginning to thaw and quite slippery. Above us was a rocky cliff as we walked along in single file - our friend, his girlfriend, Stephen and me. The river was about six feet below us.

I was last in line and the three in front weren't looking at me, of course - they were watching their footing on the slippery path.

Suddenly, a huge icicle from the rocks above dislodged itself and hurtled down towards me.

I had two options, and I had to decide between them very quickly.

The first one was to jump into the river, which was very cold and extremely fast-flowing and even in the split second I had to think about it, my answer was a resounding NO.

The other option was to try to fend off the icicle, which was about four inches across and two feet long and - as I was about to find out - remarkably heavy.

After due consideration of about a quarter of a second, I decided on the second option but was also aware that if I moved out of the way I ran the risk of sliding and ending up in the river anyway.

So I put my hands up in the air to try to fend off the icicle. One of my hands made contact with one end of the icicle, but the other end hit me a resounding clout on the forehead, before tumbling down into the river below and vanishing.

It all happened so fast that I didn't have chance to make a sound and by the time I'd recovered a bit, and counted all the hundreds of stars I was now seeing, and stood up again, the others had got quite a few yards ahead.

They turned round.

"Why have you stopped?"

"Errr - - an icicle fell on my head," I said.

I tried to explain. Big icicle. Fell off rocks above. Hit me on the head. OWWWWW!

"So where's the icicle?" they asked, with what I considered to be an unwarranted degree of suspicion.

"It fell in the river," I replied.

"So how big was it?" they asked.

I did that thing with my hands that fishermen do to show how big their catch is.

I could tell that they really didn't believe how large my icicle had been. I pointed up at the other icicles far above - - but from below, they looked much smaller.

We carried on walking. I did wonder if I should, perhaps, have gone to Accident and Emergency, but it seemed a pity to spoil the day, and all that seemed to remain of the icicle was a bit of a headache.

The next day I had a massive bruise on my forehead. Huge, purple, egg-shaped. I was SO proud. But even at school - I was a secondary school teacher then - when people asked me what the bruise was, and I said "An icicle fell on my head", they still gave me a look of disbelief. Pah.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

How I Nearly Wasn't

Next Wednesday, 8th December, it will be two years since the Communist died.

So since he's not here to regale us with his stories, I'm going to tell one or two over the next few days.

In his late teens, the Communist was a Bevin Boy - - that is, he worked down the coal mines in the Second World War.

It was very hard work and very dangerous, too. He always claimed that the pit helmet, rubbing on his forehead, caused his premature baldness - I was born when he was 33 and I never knew him with hair - but I think that may not have been entirely accurate.

He worked with pit ponies which lived underground all year, apart from when they came up for two weeks' holiday in green fields. They knew exactly how many coal wagons they were supposed to pull and if an extra one was added they wouldn't move until it was taken off again.

There were still canaries in those days, to check for dangerous gases - the idea was that canaries were very sensitive to such things so if the canary suddenly keeled over, you got out of there fast.

Miners tended to be short and stocky and the Communist was exactly that: but he had size eleven feet, huge in those days. It was his proud boast that he wore the biggest pair of pit boots in the Yorkshire coalfield.

One day he was working at the far end of a tunnel, next to a more experienced miner. Suddenly, the Communist's colleague said, very quietly, but with some force, "Get back."

The Communist got back and the roof collapsed, burying his shovel all along its length until only the tip of the handle could be seen.

"And that," he used to tell me, "was how you nearly never existed."

In the Snow of Long Ago

In the winter of 1975 I was a member of an amateur drama group called Swarthmore Studio Group, and we were putting on that classic pantomime, Cinderella.

The Communist was a pharmacist and his shop was in Acomb, York, twenty-five miles away. He was Baron Hardup in the panto. His plan that day was to do his morning in the shop, which closed at lunchtime on a Saturday, and then drive home in time for the matinee of Cinderella.

Then it snowed, heavily.

Most of the cast were from Leeds and made our way to the venue somehow, though a few people were missing. The Communist was one of them. My mother was also in the panto and we couldn't contact him, of course, as it was long before the days of mobile phones. The cast all looked at each other and swapped all the roles around, and did the show somehow, for an audience of children from a children's home. They seemed to enjoy it, creaky though it must have been!

By the end of the show there was no sign of the Communist and no word from him. We were getting worried. So my mother and I went home, collected blankets and a flask of hot coffee, and set off in her blue Mini with Snoopy stickers on the side, in search of the Communist.

These days - and in his later years at the shop - you would travel up the A64, York Road, to get to Acomb. But in those days the best way was along Wetherby Road out of Leeds, and that's the way we went, looking out for him all the way.

We didn't have to go too far. Just a couple of miles out of Leeds, we found him, trudging along the road in his big boots, rather red in the face but very cheerful.

He had set off in his car but it got irretrievably stuck in the snow. Then he found a bus and travelled on it for a few miles, until it too got stuck.

All the bus passengers ended up in a nearby pub and no doubt had a very good time. But the Communist wasn't really a drinker - half a pint on holiday was his idea of alcohol - so he got bored after a while and decided to set off to walk back to Leeds.

We could never quite work out how far he'd walked but it must have been at least ten miles, through thick snow. He always did have stamina.

He always had determination too, and was always good in a crisis. Little things - like someone leaving the door open when they should have shut it - always drove him nuts. But in any crisis, he would keep calm and cheerful.

We haven't had snow like there was that day for many years, until now. And I am enjoying remembering the Communist, striding along in the snow, secure in the knowledge that either we would come and find him, or that he would be able to walk all the way back home.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Strange Times of Snow

Desperate times need desperate measures. So I've eaten eight squares of chocolate. Cadbury's Dairy Milk, still my favourite.

This is not the kind of thing that I usually do, because I'm diabetic, for a start. But everything seems very strange here at the moment, and very different from usual.

It's just the sheer amount of snow that's fallen. My mother was supposed to be going to Amsterdam today, and changed her mind about whether or not to travel about eleventeen times. Finally she saw sense and decided against it - - and then, happily, the flight was cancelled anyway so she won't lose the money.

Nobody can get anywhere and I seem to have spent the whole day in the agency office dealing with cancellations and postponements, which is somehow very exhausting. I was supposed to be doing a roleplay job in Leeds today - quite a big job for the department concerned, and it had been booked for months. I could have got there, but they reckoned that the students wouldn't, and they cancelled it. I think that really they should pay me for such a late cancellation - - but know that it simply won't have occurred to them, and that their Finance department will just say No if I ask.

I'm glad that Olli's here as he's been working in our office and giving me some much-needed help with all the work - the actor who should have been in today was snowed in and couldn't get here.

Stephen actually took the car to work today, rather than cycling. He cycled every single day last winter in spite of the snow - - but this is just too deep. He came home early and got caught in gridlocked traffic as everyone else did the same thing.

Meanwhile, Gareth has got a temporary driving job. It's every night this week, delivering newspapers to places all over East Yorkshire. It's kind of a paper round - - on a very grand scale! It's hard work and he's getting ready to set off now - of all the weeks to be doing this job, it's going to be the most difficult ever, but he seems well up for the challenge.

I've cleared the bird table of snow many times today, and fed the birds lots of times, and given them fresh water which has frozen almost immediately. I'm sure that many of the birds will die in this extreme cold. They all look much rounder than usual as they fluff up their feathers to keep warm. I saw a tiny wren in the bushes the other day - I really don't know how such small birds, which need to eat so frequently, can possibly survive the cold.

Gareth dug his car out of the drive and the snow was so deep that it covered the number-plate. The trees are all bowed down with snow and everything's eerily quiet.

I know that people in countries where there's frequent snow won't be impressed by any of this. But here in Britain we're no longer used to it - last winter was the first hard winter for decades.

I really thought, after several decades of mild winters, that I'd never see the snow in knee-high drifts in our garden again. I was wrong. It feels very strange.

Gay Pirates

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