Sunday, January 31, 2010

Back in the Garden Again

It's sunny today but freezing cold. In fact below freezing. The water in the birdbath has been turning to ice all day, and I keep refilling it with hot water.

However, my mother doesn't care about the cold. She now has two arms again, since her broken shoulder has healed, and she's been out in the garden all day.

The wheelbarrow she's using is 99% rust and the other 1% is comprised of holes in the rust. I don't know how old it is, but it's been around all the time my parents have lived here - - which is since 1959 - and I don't remember it ever being new. I think perhaps I might buy her a new one for her birthday - though I expect she'd consider it an unwarranted extravagance.

The physiotherapist comes just about every day to give her exercises to help with the shoulder that was broken. She does them with tremendous energy. My mother always has lots of energy: if she can't use it up during the day then she doesn't sleep at night.

She's been through a tough time with the broken shoulder over the past three months - - and I have to say she's put everyone else through one too, as she was probably the worst patient in the history of the whole world ever.

However, now she's the most committed convalescent. One of the exercises she has to do is to lie on the floor and try to put the arm that was broken above her head - - and she really wants to be able to do this, in order to swim backstroke again. She demonstrated this to me last night: she's really not pleased that the arm won't go right above her head.

But after the demonstration, she sprang to her feet like a gymnast, without even thinking about it.

"Mum," I said, "you must be the most supple eighty-five-year-old in the country. Nobody else of your age can get up like that."

"Yes, but I can't get my arm above my head," she grumbled.

This whole episode has made me worried for her future: she's so used to being completely well and very fit, and simply couldn't bear it when she wasn't.

But it's good to see her out in the garden again. Welcome back, Mum.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Leftover Cat

So I was all ready to start doing the ironing - - - plonked it on the ironing board all ready - - went out, made a cup of tea - - - came back - - and found this.

Yes, Wendy the Cat, formerly Wendy the Mad Kitten. She doesn't even live here! She belongs to Olli and Gareth and they were staying here last weekend - - and then there was no room in the car to take her back again - - so she's been here all week.

As you can see, she has made herself very much at home. Perhaps I won't do the ironing. Perhaps I'll just sit down and watch telly instead, shall I? Yes, I think I will.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Stepping Stones

I like stepping stones: they're fun. Here's my friend David crossing some on the River Wharfe at Burnsall, in the Yorkshire Dales, in the summer of 2006.

And here are the very well-known stepping stones on the River Wharfe at Bolton Abbey, in a recent October:

I spent many a long summer childhood afternoon going backwards and forwards across them. I don't remember ever falling in, which surprises me as they aren't very big and need quite good balance, and I'm not sure I could cross them now. I know I did a lot of clambering about in Lake District rivers too, in those days, so perhaps I'm just out of practice.

Here they are seen from the bridge:

and here's the identical view, when we arrived at Bolton Abbey in the mist, last Saturday morning:

The same trees - - the same riverbank - - and no stepping stones.

Where were they? Well, a bit of cunning detective work found them, and here they are:

Several feet down below the water! The river was, of course, very high because of all the melted snow.

Seeing them down there gave me a strange feeling of loss. Even though I know they'll be back, and so will Spring. It's been a long winter.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Daphne and the Age of Chivalry

The train from Leeds to Manchester, which left at six twenty-five this morning ( SIX TWENTY-FIVE! yes, I'm just mentioning it in a martyred kind of way in case you missed it when I mentioned it recently) was blissfully empty of people. There were a few - - but not many, so it was a peaceful start to the day.

Not so the train coming back.

It was packed. There were people standing all down the corridors as well as in the areas at the end of the carriages.

I'd had a very long day, which started when I got up at ten to five (yes, bring out those violins again). I must say that I really enjoyed the work but I'd had a very busy day yesterday, playing a stroke patient, and then the day before, playing a different stroke patient - - - so when it looked like I might have to stand on the train all the way from Manchester to Leeds, I wasn't happy.

Then the young man in the seat next to where I was standing got to his feet. "Please, have my seat."

I wasn't going to politely decline, oh no!

"Thank you very much."

"You're very welcome."

Wow! And there I was, thinking that the Age of Chivalry was truly dead, and suddenly it was brought back to life.

Then I started thinking. Firstly, I thought, it wasn't that long ago that it was me standing up for other people on crowded trains! And secondly - - well, I looked at the reflection of myself in the window and I looked about a hundred and thirty three and a bit peaky with it.

So perhaps Young Man stood up in self-defence. He might just have thought that I was about to collapse and land on him. Perhaps the jury's still out on the Age of Chivalry. But I was very glad to have a seat, all the same.

I'll be going to bed early in the hope of losing a few decades overnight.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Early Starts

I don't like early starts unless it's a glorious sunny morning in May or June, not a cloud in the sky, birdsong in the air, and I'm going on holiday. That kind of early start is fine.

Of course, since I started swimming in the early mornings I have had lots of early starts and I have to say that I don't like those either, especially the moment when I get out of bed. But it's worth it in the end.

But on Thursday morning I have to be on the 6.25am train from Leeds to Manchester and that's just ridiculous.

Entirely my own fault, of course - I accepted the job, which is as a roleplayer for medical students, and I knew straight away what time I'd need to be in Manchester and it is eight o'clock in the morning which is a time of ridiculous earliness, especially on a cold, dark winter's morning.

But I know what I'm like - - and I like to set myself these challenges. Can I get up, get there on time, do the work as well as I possibly can, come home again?

I still think I'm a twenty-five-year-old having an adventure. When I've done the job, I hope I'll feel a sense of achievement, and that this will keep the exhaustion at bay for a while.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Two Boys Fighting

Quarter to eight in the morning, driving through a rather dodgy part of Leeds on my way to the swimming pool, slowing down before reaching a big roundabout at the bottom of a hill, and something caught my eye.

I looked again. In a kind of alcove in a hedge were two boys fighting. Or rather, one boy punching another boy repeatedly - one boy raining blows on the other one - - lots of quick punches. The other boy was either squatting or kneeling - - low down, anyway.

They weren't very big boys - probably aged about ten - and, with the story of the two Edlington boys fresh in my mind, I stopped the car half-on the grass verge just before the roundabout, and rushed out. It wasn't really much of a decision - - more my Inner Schoolmarm bursting out from within.

"OY! YOU TWO! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?" I yelled in the voice of a Crazed Teacher from Hell.

(Of course, it was pretty obvious what they were doing - - but I find, like many teachers and ex-teachers, I excel at stating the obvious on such occasions).

The boys sprang apart. The one doing all the punching was white: the other was Asian.

"Are you all right?" I asked them both. Another stating-the-obvious question but I didn't want to humiliate the Asian boy by suggesting that the other one was knocking seven bells out of him.

"Yeah. We were only playing," said White Boy who retained a certain swagger.

"Well it didn't look like fun to me," I said. "And I recognise your uniforms, and I also know what you both look like now. So I want you to go off to school and I'll watch you all the way down the road, and if either of you lays a finger on the other I'll be down your school at top speed to report you to the Head Teacher. Got it?"

Of course, I didn't recognise the uniforms at all. Dark colours, white shirts, no tie - - really school uniforms are SUCH a help when it comes to identification purposes, aren't they?

Anyway, my Schoolmarm Voice (once heard, probably never forgotten, I fear) did seem to work and they went off on their way.

Though, of course, I was left wondering.

Was it bullying? A racial attack? Or were they, perhaps, only playing? Best friends who'd had a quarrel? Who knows.

And, of course, I didn't really know if the fight was going to continue as soon as they were out of sight - - and yet I didn't see what else I could do really.

After years of teaching, I just have the naive belief that youngish children will obey me. I taught in secondary schools and these boys looked more like top primary age.

I think with that age group - really with any age group, I suppose - part of getting them to obey is expecting that they will. "You get the behaviour that you expect," I read somewhere when I started teaching, and in general it's absolutely true. If you expect a riot, you will most certainly get one.

So - - I just expected them to obey me, and they did, at least until they were out of my sight. But would I still have stopped if they had been fourteen or so? That would have been dangerous and the honest answer is I'm not sure - often in such situations I act first and think afterwards, and that's probably not a good thing.

I'm still not sure if what I did was the best thing to do, but at least I stopped the fight for a while, perhaps long enough for the heat to go out of it. Or perhaps not. But of one thing I'm certain: it was really hard to tell exactly what was going on.

In the 1990s two ten-year-olds took the toddler James Bulger from a shopping centre and murdered him. Lots of people saw him being dragged through the streets and indeed one or two challenged the two bigger boys but accepted their explanation that they were taking him home, or whatever.

I can see why. It's so hard to tell what's actually happening when you suddenly come across something strange that you don't usually see. It's so hard to know what to do.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Two Spectacular Things to See

Stephen and I had a lovely day off yesterday and firstly went up to Bolton Abbey Estate near Ilkley, where we had a long walk interrupted by a large lunch at the excellent cafe by the river.

Here's the River Wharfe at Bolton Abbey:

It's a beautiful, wide river, though yesterday was far deeper and flowing far faster than ever I've seen it before, because of the recent melted snow, of course.

My favourite thing at Bolton Abbey throughout my childhood was the Strid, and I'm still fascinated by it.

At one point on the Bolton Abbey Estate, the whole wide river has to pass through a gap in the rocks which is probably less than a couple of yards wide. It's called the Strid because it looks as though you could stride across it - - and if you were a good jumper, very confident, and if it was a hot, dry day in summer so the rocks weren't wet and slippery, and the river was very low - - well, then you probably could.

And some people have jumped it, and lived to tell the tale. They were all total idiots, though, I have to say.

If you think about it, you realise that in order to get through the narrow gap the whole river must, in effect, turn sideways. So if the depth in the photo above now becomes the width - - well, of course, the width must become the depth and the Strid is incredibly deep with a whole mass of underground water-filled caverns.

So if you jump, and you don't land safely, you die. Always. It swirls you down and down and that's it - nobody has ever survived.

I remember going along the path to the Strid as a very young child, riding on my mum's cousin Frank's shoulders, and that scarily enjoyable sense of anticipation at seeing this very scary place.

Yesterday, with all the extra water, it was at its most wild and whooshy.

The water was splashing all over the rocks. I know it's hard to tell the scale from this photo - the narrowest gap's still just a couple of yards - - but I just wasn't going to go any nearer to put something there to give it scale. You can take incredibly brave investigative reporting too far.

After our Bolton Abbey walk we went back to Leeds and saw James Cameron's film Avatar. I'm not going to link to it, because it's probably best not to know too much about it before you see it. It's not the kind of film where you need to have any previous knowledge and it doesn't have a complicated plot. We saw it in 3D: I wasn't sure if it would be possible to enjoy a whole film in 3D. But take it from me, it is.

What you should do is go to a cinema - - because it just won't be the same on a small screen - and see it in 3D, because that is how it should be seen. I strongly recommend that you do this. Soon.

As for me, I had a great walk, two lovely meals out and two really spectacular sights: one real and one man-made. Fantastic!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The World of Joseph French

At the end of a dream about something else I got out of the car in my dream and was presented with a promotional leaflet with a pretend-embroidered picture of a galleon.

It was advertising a new restaurant in Chapel-Allerton (which is a rather trendy part of Leeds) called The World of Joseph French.

Joseph French, apparently, was an eighteenth-century explorer rather along the lines of Captain Cook and he was born in Chapel-Allerton so someone was opening a new restaurant to commemorate (or probably to cash in on) this.

As a promotional offer, lunch was £7 each from a set menu and dinner was £9, but I suspected that this would go up after a while as the restaurant's food was based on eighteenth-century dishes with lots of meat.

In the restaurant - it said in the brochure - everyone sat in little booths for privacy, surrounded by white screens and when you had ordered your food a picture of it came up on the screen so you could see if you liked the look of it and change your order if you didn't.

I googled Joseph French this morning and was extremely disappointed to find that he didn't exist: and that hence his discovery of a chain of remote Pacific islands had not in fact happened.

Yes: it was, as I said right at the beginning, all a dream. But how very specific a dream! And what on earth is going on in my head?

A shame that there isn't any such restaurant though - I would have tried it tonight.

Friday, January 22, 2010

A Blackout Ate My Blogpost - - Those Two Boys

Well there I was, post nearly completed, about to press Publish Post - - and there was a sudden power cut. It was over as soon as I thought - - hey, it's gone dark - - and there was the computer. OFF. In fact already coming back on.

And there was my blog post. GONE. I don't know why it didn't save the draft.

I was having a bit of a rant about those two boys in South Yorkshire who ferociously attacked two other boys for no reason at all.

The two attackers - brothers - were age ten and eleven. The two victims - who survived, but only just - were age nine and eleven.

The attackers were from a family known for their violence and lawlessness. The two brothers had been placed with foster parents, who clearly couldn't cope with them. The authority responsible said that "many important lessons" needed to be learnt.

Cases as extreme as this are, fortunately, rare - the last similar case to hit the headlines was the James Bulger case - where two boys murdered a toddler, having abducted him from a shopping centre: that was back in 1993 but I'm sure that everyone in Britain remembers it.

So, what's to be done? The two boys in the most recent case have received indeterminate sentences and will serve at least five years. There's talk of taking their parents to court, though I can't quite see how that will help.

"Could you become loving, kind, supportive parents please?"

"Okay".

Fining the parents wouldn't help - - they won't have any spare money. Imprisoning them might make the rest of us feel better for a bit - - but how would it help in the long term?

The thing is, this case is so extreme that all the usual punishments become rather irrelevant. We're not talking naughty boys here - we're talking children with no moral framework to their lives at all, ever, in any way. Children who have committed evil deeds because they really don't know what a good deed is.

And yes, of course I know all the arguments about people from terrible backgrounds who rose above them and became decent human beings. It just happened that this lot didn't.

Our first instinct here is for revenge and it is not the right thing to do. It helps nobody. If we treat these boys brutally all that happens is that they will become even more brutal, and we'll be paying for them in prison for ever.

So we need to minimise their destructive effect on society. Are we locking them away to punish them, or to rehabilitate them, or simply to keep them away from the rest of us?

Unless they're going to be locked away for ever - and that to me seems extreme for boys who are only ten and eleven - then we need to find some way of letting them back into society in a way that will help them become better members of it.

And that would mean lots and lots and lots of loving care and rehabilitation.

But that's not what we want to do, is it? As soon as we think about their victims, we want to hit the attackers very, very hard. The mother of one of the victims shouted in court, "I hope someone does that to you!"

Well, I can see why she thinks that and I expect I'd feel the same gut instinct if it was my child who'd been tortured in that way.

It doesn't make it right though. Treating horror with horror is wrong and it doesn't work.

So the right thing to do would be the rehabilitation method - to try to undo all the evil that's been done to these two attackers by the terrible or non-existent parenting that they have experienced. This seems to have happened to the two boys who murdered James Bulger. They had a far better upringing in custody in many ways than they would have had if left with their families, and it cost the taxpayer a fortune.

I feel the most sorry for kids who have terrible childhoods and - because they don't display such extremes of behaviour - get no help at all.

So, what would I do if I were in charge? I'd certainly be splitting those brothers up and taking them right out of the situation, for a start, and taking the rest of the kids in that family away from those parents who - to me - have relinquished any parental rights to them. They need to be with very experienced foster parents who can give them a strong, loving framework with lots of clear boundaries.

I couldn't do it. But I think there are people who can - - not many, but a few.

All very well. Yes, the right thing to do.

And I'd have the parents - and other similarly feckless, violent parents - forcibly sterilised too. That's not very liberal, is it? But oh boy, it would help.

Perhaps it wouldn't help. But even thinking about it makes me feel a bit better.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Illnesses Which in My Case I Have Not Got

There are only a limited number of jobs that a woman can do whilst lying down.

I did one of them today.

No, not that one. Honestly! A different one.

Somewhere in England some final-year medical students were having an exam, and I was playing the role of a patient with cholecystitis - - - an inflamed gall bladder, in fact.

They had to examine my abdomen, and I had been told where to show that it hurt by subtle "I am in pain" acting. "Owwww! Aaaaargh! Nonononono! Heeeeeelp! Mercy!" - - etc.

Actually if you prod a patient with this in one particular place it hurts like hell and this is called Murphy's Sign (nothing to do with Murphy's Law, I'm pleased to say).

So that's what I was doing all day. Forty times, in fact. Eight minutes each.

But of course, even when the students were pretty sure what the problem was, they have to give an alternative possible diagnosis, just in case. Sometimes there can be more than one possible diagnosis, of course.

So in order to do that, they needed to take out quite a few of my organs, count them, check them over, and put them back, hopefully in the right places.

Ohh all right then, they didn't actually need to take them out - - but they did need to find them to check they were the right size etc, just in case the pain was, for example, caused by me being a heavy drinker with an enlarged liver.

So they all had to rummage about in my abdomen until they found my liver. They did try to find my spleen, but I think it had popped out to a cafe somewhere.

They also examined my hands for any signs of illness and my eyes for any signs of jaundice - - and declared them free of illness and in reasonable working order.

All the way through they listed lots of illnesses that I haven't got and it was actually quite comforting to be told this by forty nearly-qualified medics, one after the other.

I was very impressed by the students, as a matter of fact: they all told me what they needed to do, asked my permission, apologised for their cold hands and thanked me afterwards. Although they did know that I wasn't a real patient, one or two looked distinctly surprised when they met me in the corridor afterwards: I had apparently made a miraculous recovery.

I was particularly grateful to quite a few of them who thought it might be an ectopic pregnancy. Yes, yes, I know everyone over twenty-five looks pretty ancient to most students, but it cheered me up no end.

It was an interesting day - - though with a very long, traffic-filled journey on either side of it. I think I'll be going to bed soon, to let my poor abdomen recover for a while.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Over the Misty Pennines

Tomorrow I'm heading West to a far-distant university city. Well, not THAT far but it'll be an early start, I can tell you - sixty miles or so.

It's for a medical students' exam, the kind where they move round from room to room, performing a different task in each - - interpreting an X-ray - - consulting with a patient - - testing reflexes - - that kind of thing. The exams usually need some Simulated Patients, of whom I am one.

I like to be well prepared for such things - - let's face it, I like to be well prepared for everything I do, I'm the kind of person who likes to prepare like crazy and then worry about everything for a bit. Why? - - Er - - dunno.

But I really haven't a clue about what I'm doing tomorrow.

Why? They sent me a script in the post (it can't be emailed for reasons of confidentiality) and it didn't arrive.

So I let them know, and they immediately sent me another one, which also didn't arrive.

So I let them know - - and there'll be a script waiting for me when I get there tomorrow morning.

All I have been told is a vague approximation where I have the pain. If it is pain that I have. I can't tell you. Confidential, see. If I told you, I'd have to kill you.

I've got to be there at half-past eight and it finishes at five. Deep breath - - it's going to be a long day.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Fifty-Nine Minute Mile

I know some people just can't understand it.

"How can you do it? Isn't it just SO boring?"

I think meditation would be boring and yet some people swear by it. I never find swimming boring.

The only bit I don't like about early-morning swimming is when the alarm goes off and I get out of bed. I hate that bit. HATE it. So the key is to do it as fast as possible, so I'm up before I can think about it.

I eat a huge bowl of porridge first, so I'll have time to digest it a bit, and then I get dressed. It only takes nine minutes to drive to the pool if I'm earlier than the rush-hour traffic.

When there was all the snow and ice recently, there was something very strangely pleasant about the car temperature saying minus 4 in the strange early-morning snowy light. And then into the sudden warmth of the leisure centre - I loved it.

I love the first few strokes and the feel of the water. Then I get going and actually the first few lengths are the hardest - I feel not quite co-ordinated somehow. Between twelve lengths and twenty lengths I feel a bit tired - - still not going properly, and still a lot of lengths to go. But after twenty I feel - - hey, suddenly I'm nearly half way. Even more nearly at thirty! And then, by the time I get to forty I have really got into the rhythm of it, and feel I could keep going all morning.

What do I think about? The honest answer is not much. I just enjoy it. I am so busy generally in my life that I have to think about something or other most of the time - - always preparing, always planning. This is one time when I don't have to. So - if I think at all! - I think about how to improve my stroke, and try different ways of doing that. When I'm swimming in the sea - my favourite - I think a bit more - about the waves and the people and boats and sunshine and seagulls and anything else that's happening. But in the pool, I really don't think much.

Yesterday, when I'd done fifty lengths, I looked at the clock and suddenly realised that I'd been going rather faster than usual - - and that perhaps, if I put a bit of a sprint on, I might just be able to achieve my goal of swimming the mile in under an hour.

So I concentrated on swimming as fast as I could - - still not very fast, I'm not a fast swimmer and I swim breast stroke - but faster than normal! I didn't look at the clock again until I was on my final length - number sixty-four. It's hard for me to see the clock until I get near it, because even with my prescription goggles my eyesight isn't brilliant. But as I got nearer, I realised I was going to make it. Fifty-nine minutes!

I've never done that before. In my twenties and thirties, I never usually swam more than half a mile and in my forties I slowed down a bit because I was diabetic and hadn't been diagnosed, and just didn't have so much energy. More recently, I increased my swim to a kilometre - forty-two lengths - but I just didn't realise how easy I'd find it to increase it to a mile.

I tend to be a bit slow in some ways. It often takes me a while to discover things. I'm so pleased I have discovered this early-morning swimming. It sets me up for the rest of the day - I feel far more relaxed, and much less anxious. I feel so lucky that my Mum taught me to swim when I was little, and that my parents took me swimming such a lot.

I can't go swimming again until Sunday as I have lots of early-morning work this week. Some of it has been moved to this week from a couple of weeks ago when it was so snowy. I'll miss the swimming: but I'll be back at the pool on Sunday morning. It feels like a sneaked-in holiday: a secret pleasure.

Monday, January 18, 2010

A Stick of Spanish

It was one of those programmes where I shout "Jammy Pig!" or similar phrases of envy soon after it begins. There are quite a few of those. Generally some presenter gets paid to travel all over the place doing interesting things, often by train.

This time it was ex-politician Michael Portillo trying out some railway journeys round Britain. I could do that! Let me do it!

- - Anyway, they didn't. Michael Portillo went to Pontefract in West Yorkshire, not too far from where I live in Leeds, and where they used to grow liquorice, and then they made it into little round flat shapes called Pontefract Cakes.

I like liquorice though I hardly ever eat it now - too much sugar. Liquorice Allsorts used to be a childhood favourite of mine and I associate them with the Communist, who always loved them. I like the name "Pontefract" too - - it comes from the Latin for "broken bridge" and must have stayed broken for a very long time indeed to give the whole place that name.

"Have they mended that bridge yet, Claudius?"

"Fat chance, mate. Still broken. Had to go eight miles round with my chariot."

My brother lives in Holland now where liquorice is a great favourite - it's known as "drop" over there. I notice the Wikipedia article that I've linked to earlier mentions this - - and yes, I noticed when I was in Amsterdam that it's sold all over the place there.

Michael Portillo found an Aged Liquorice Grower who explained that the plant originally came from Spain - Wikipedia has a slightly different explanation - - but anyway, it clearly had a Spanish connection and therefore a stick of licquorice was often referred to as a stick of Spanish in the Olden Days.

Hey, I thought, what's all this about the Olden Days? A stick of Spanish? That's what I used to call it when I were a lass, as they say round here and as they say in Pontefract too, no doubt.

Then the Aged Liquorice Grower explained that liquorice is no longer grown around Pontefract, though the sweets are still made there. So what are the sweets made from? Aged Liquorice Grower showed us a liquorice bush growing in his garden and then produced some authentic chunks of liquorice root which people used to chew in the Olden Days.

Hey again! Olden Days indeed! For when I was a child the Communist used to sell chunks of liquorice root in his chemist's shop, and I used to love chewing them - they tasted great and you would chew them until they went all stringy.

It's slightly worrying when things which were a perfectly ordinary part of childhood suddenly crop up as a chunk of History.

Though I suppose it happens to all of us. If we're lucky, that is.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

My Amazing Competition Win

Twenty-five years or so ago, it was August, and a hot August too. Leeds seemed fairly empty - everyone seemed to have gone to the seaside.

I happened to go shopping in a department store in Leeds City Centre - rare for me - and found a leaflet advertising a competition to Win a Holiday Wardrobe.

What this meant was that you would win some vouchers to be spent in that particular store - - but when I looked more closely, I thought it might be worth entering.

There were five prizes - - the top one was £500, then £400, £300, £200, £100 - all in vouchers for the store.

To enter you had to work out a series of anagrams all to do with holidays - they were all a bit tricky to do because I'm not good at anagrams. If I see the word cebah I think it's an exciting new word, and not an anagram of beach.

Still, I stopped for a coffee in their cafe and didn't have anything to read, so whilst I drank my coffee I worked out all the anagrams.

Then you had to write a little slogan as to why you wanted to buy your holiday clothes from this particular store.

I thought hey - - it's the middle of summer: Leeds is extremely empty at the moment, and so is this store, and this comeptition is a bit fiddly to do because there are lots of anagrams - -- I bet not many people will enter.

The Communist had won quite a few competitions at the time, from the Pharmaceutical Journal. Any competition in it had a very low number of entries because it was only read by pharmacists. Most pharmacists didn't seem to be very good at competition slogans. The Communist excelled at them, and at little rhymes too, so he was always winning things - none of them very expensive, but all well worth having.

I picked up a handful of competition entry leaflets from the department store. I filled in all the answers. I made up some cheesy slogans. And then I gave them to ten friends and asked them to fill in their name and address, and then the next time I went to town, I took the whole lot back to the store and surreptitiously put them in the competition box.

And then I forgot all about it.

Until, a few weeks later, my friends started ringing me up and telling me that they'd won. Between us, we won all the prizes except one.

The slogan which won the top prize was actually written by one of my friends so I can claim no credit for it:

"I want to win a Boggins Holiday Wardrobe because they're tops for value, tops for style, and tops for service with a smile."

I had considered this cheesy beyond cheesiness, but it just goes to show. Never underestimate the cheesiness required.

Everyone who won insisted on splitting their winnings with me. I hadn't really considered what would happen in such an eventuality, because I never expected to win, of course. Anyway, everyone seemed very happy.

Buying clothes has never been of paramount interest to me but I do remember that amongst the things we bought was a summer suit for Stephen to wear to work, which lasted for years.

I had such success with this - albeit rather naughty - strategy that afterwards I couldn't bear the idea of not winning anything I entered - - so I hardly ever entered anything again. That was it for our family competition winnings. Olli once won a poetry competition when he was very little but if I quote you the poem he will actually kill me. Yes, DEAD. So I won't.

Today, I've just entered a competition in a magazine - - but no cheesy slogan was required, which was a pity because I think "They're tops for value, tops for style and tops for service with a smile" is ripe for recycling and could be applied to anything, really.

So I don't expect to win. But we'll see.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Not a Problem

A few months ago, I went with my friend to collect his new glasses from the Spectacles Shop.

"Hello, I've come to collect my new glasses," he said. (I add a small disclaimer here as those might not have been his exact words, but they were near enough.)

"Not a problem." said the girl behind the counter.

And, d'you know what, when you have been told that your glasses are ready, and you go to the Glasses Shop to collect them, and you go and speak to the person in charge of Spectacles Collection, and all you have so far said is "Hello" followed by "I've come to collect my new glasses" - - well should you expect there to be a problem?

She was correct, as a matter of fact. There was not a problem. Amazingly, the new glasses had not been accidentally trodden on that morning, or abducted by aliens, or spontaneously combusted, or anything at all problematic. They were sitting there, patiently, waiting to be collected.

Furthermore, at the moment there's a telly advertisement for sofas which seems to be shown a lot. (And I'm telling you now, if I ever stand for political office and get to be Prime Minister, which is on the face of it very unlikely but you never know - - well, if you vote for me I will ban all commercials for sofas, because they're very dull. And also they're somewhat dishonest because any actor featured in a sofa advert is never more than about nine inchest tall, so as to make the sofas look bigger: I know this from experience, okay? So when you're about to place the cross by my name on the voting slip, do bear it in mind, won't you? Don't say I didn't warn you when all sofa commercials disappear from your screens).

Anyway, on this particular telly advert, the customer says something earth-shattering like "Hello, I want to buy a sofa." And the salesperson - - or rather the Nine-Inch-High Miniature Actor playing the salesperson - - replies with - - guess what?

"Not a problem."

Okay, so you're in the SOFA SHOP. WHY THE HELL WOULD IT BE A PROBLEM?

(Oh look, I'm coming over all BLOCK CAPITALS again. Sorry.)

But let us imagine that there WAS a problem.

"Hello, I want to buy a sofa."

"Ahh well, I'm sorry, Sir, but although it does say SOFA SHOP above the door, and although there are two hundred and ninety-three sofas in this room, I'm afraid we don't sell them any more. We just can't be bothered lifting the sodding things. We only sell confectionery now. So I'm afraid, if you want to buy a sofa, there is most certainly a problem. But can I interest you in a Mars Bar or a nice box of Quality Street, or perhaps some Brandy Balls?"

This morning we went into the Bicycle Shop, to buy Stephen a new bicycle.

"Hello," said Stephen, "I'm interested in buying a new bicycle."

And what did the man behind the counter say?

He said "Yes, of course. Have you a particular type of bicycle in mind?"

He didn't mention any kind of problem at all. Within about ten minutes Stephen had found the ideal bicycle and within about fifteen minutes we had bought it.

Righto. Here's my conclusion. The phrase Not a Problem is extremely annoying. And it puts the idea that there might be a problem into your head, when it wasn't there before. Derren Brown has made a whole career out of that kind of thing - that you can plant an idea in someone's head very quickly and without them noticing.

So, please, could I invite you all, the next time someone says "Not a Problem" to you, to ask them, "Exactly what kind of problem was it that you think I might be anticipating, and that you are now anxious to reassure me does not exist?"

It won't do any good. But it might be fun.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Three Degrees

Ahhh - - was it only yesterday when everything looked like this?

And this evening, when I got in the car to come home after a long and interesting day's roleplay, the temperature display said three degrees Celsius.

For a moment, I just couldn't understand it. A 3 without a minus sign before it? What could this be?

Then I worked out what it meant. Three degrees above freezing! - - Tropical paradise!

And suddenly, the snow was mostly gone. All the time I'd been working with medical students it had been thawing. Though there's some still left in our side street, which was the snowiest place in Leeds apart from the doctors' surgery.

A lot of people have sent me photographs of beautiful snow-covered countryside and it does look stunning, but I haven't seen much of it for real: for one thing, the roads were a bit too hazardous to get there.

So I don't think I appreciated the Big Freeze really and I'm welcoming the Big Thaw and hope it continues.

However, my friend Sarah sent me this photograph of a protest meeting against the thaw, and I thought you might enjoy it.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Dr Death and the Repeat Prescription

Okay, I'm busy, I've taken on lots of work, I love it all but it's a LOT.

So I have to plan ahead with some things and one of these was my repeat prescription. I knew that one lot of my tablets would run out this coming weekend so I ordered a repeat prescription last weekend, in plenty of time. I did it by email, with three things listed, really clearly.

Like this. "Glucophage (modified Metformin) 500mg".

That's because the ordinary Metformin, which lowers the blood sugar in diabetics like me, makes me feel hideously queasy. The modified stuff releases it slowly all day and doesn't make me feel so sick.

On previous occasions when I've just written Glucophage I've ended up with a prescription for the ordinary Metformin. So I wrote it all very clearly.

This is because, for some reason, the doctor who does my repeat prescriptions always seems to be the one I shall call Dr Death. My good friend Silverback calls him that too, because he also once had a too-close encounter with this doctor, whose other nickname could be Dr Dolittle.

"Take two paracetamol and come back if it's not better in a year." That kind of thing. His lack of any kind of action nearly killed the Communist as well. Sighhh.

So although I'm still with that practice, I never, ever, ever see this particular doctor. But that doesn't mean he's not let loose on my repeat prescriptions.

I emailed in my repeat prescription on Sunday and it takes forty-eight hours to be done, so I knew it would certainly be ready by today.

Off I went to collect it, earlier on today, on my way back from swimming (shall I mention in passing that I was there at 8am and was first in the pool? - - Oh look, I just did).

Leeds was thawing a bit today but there was one chunk of it that was still sheer, shiny, slippery ice - - and that was the car park at the doctors'. So I parked on the road. The path by the side of the car park was also the most slippery thing I've seen since the erstwhile politician Jeffrey Archer explaining why he gave two thousand pounds to a prostitute (it was a long time ago now, but I did so enjoy it).

So why was the whole entrance to the doctors' practice just one big layer of ice? "Trying to get more business?" suggested Silverback entertainingly later.

It was a totally grit-free zone. But I happened to be seeing a solicitor later on about something else, and she confirmed my thoughts: which were that they can't grit it or clear the snow, in case someone then falls over and sues the doctors' practice for not doing a good enough job with the snow-clearing and the gritting.

And this, dear reader, is the crazed world in which we live.

Anyway, in I slithered, and came to a halt by the counter, and asked for my repeat prescription.

The receptionist was a man of such extreme youth that "boy" would have been a better term. In fact, let's face it, he was a PFY, which is, in the company where Stephen works, a job description - - it means Pimply Faced Youth.

This one was very, very cheerful. Now then, doctors' receptionists are often accused of being too grumpy. This one was at the other extreme. It's possible to be just too cheerful, especially when the situation doesn't warrant it.

After some discussion about how my name might be filed alphabetically, he handed me my prescription, on which there was one item instead of the requested three.

"Errr - - this is only part of it," I said.

Some discussion followed. Had I perhaps forgotten to ask for the other two items? he asked me, grinning like a maniac.

- -No, I perhaps hadn't, I replied. Would he like to check on my original email?

He chose not to. He could smell the scent of Righteous Indignation.

He went into the back and there remained for around the period of time that it takes to train a whole new doctor, starting from birth.

Then he came out again.

"It'll be ready for you tomorrow if you'd like to come back then," he said cheerily.

(An apology would have been nice, wouldn't it, Mr Foetus?)

"Perhaps it will," I said, rather too politely, "but I can't come back tomorrow, I am working all day in a distant land." (The centre of Leeds, in which there is no snow).

"Oh well, Monday will be fine then," he said with the air of one taking a curtain call to prolonged applause.

There was by now a large queue behind me so I didn't go down the road which I wanted to take. Which was "Look, sonny, get this straight. Monday might be fine for YOU and it might be fine for Dr Death but it's NOT FINE FOR ME! I don't want to spend half an hour of Monday coming here! Dr Death screwed up - - how about if he delivers the prescription to my house? WHY DO DOCTORS ALWAYS ASSUME THAT THEY ARE MORE BUSY THAN THE PATIENT IS?"

Yes, I could feel those BLOCK CAPITALS coming on so I left before I said something that I might later regret.

I'll go back on Monday. Though my tablets run out on Saturday. Another triumph for Dr Death.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Skidding on Ice

All melting away nicely it was, last night. Ahhhh goodbye snow, I thought, and hello Spring. Catkins. Lambs. Daffodils. I'm ready for you now.

Then it all turned to slush and froze solid during the night. Damn.

So this morning we had an interesting new form of Weather where it all looked like slush but was in fact ice, not water. So when you stepped on it - - - well, even Torvill and Dean would have had problems.

I had to be at a venue along the ring road for a roleplay by twenty to nine and it was under five miles away but I left myself nearly an hour.

The traffic was nose to tail in the inside lane and as we made our cautious way along I was pleased to find that Leeds City Council had thoughtfully placed a gritting lorry (yes, they do exist, I've seen one) directly in front of me. This, I tell you, was a Good Thing.

A car on the opposite side of the dual carriageway had crashed, clearly at some speed, into the middle barrier, bending the barrier to the exact shape of the front of the car. By the time I passed it the driver was nowhere in sight so I don't know what had happened to him or her.

Ironically, when I had just passed it, a car overtook me - and the line of cars of which I was part - at ridiculously high speed and carried on like Jensen Button. Clearly the black ice which was causing us all to be cautious didn't apply to him. He zoomed off into the distance.

If by any chance he was totally thick and lacking in all imagination, I would have thought that the sight of the car that had smashed into the central barrier might have made him pause for thought a bit. But no.

What I should have liked was for a giant grabber hook like you get in fairgrounds to come down from the sky and pick up his car, shaking it gently until he fell out of it into a pile of snow. And then the Brian Blessed-type voice would boom, "That's it, mate. You're an idiot and you're never going to drive a car again."

Sadly that didn't happen. And although I find it hard to muster any sympathy for Speeding Idiot, I would have had lots and lots for anyone he'd crashed into.

About a mile further the gritting lorry changed lanes and I was going to turn right at the roundabout so couldn'f follow it any more. Pretty soon I hit a patch of black ice and all the wheels just spun round uselessly for a few moments. But because I was travelling at about two miles an hour I managed to get off it and to continue on my merry way.

I got to the roleplay fine and had a very enjoyable morning. The journey back was a bit easier as it had warmed up slightly by then - it was only freezing, rather than well below.

The trouble is, we have a whole generation of drivers who have never, ever, driven in snow and ice and don't know quite how scary it is when the car skids. And I'm quite sure that they're going round crashing into cars and pedestrians, because it's very easily done. If the Government won't equip me with the big grabber hook, I'm not sure how to stop them.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Tortoise

"You are slow, Miss Blass," said Mr Storey, to me.

He was the teacher charged with the job of getting me through the dreaded Eleven Plus exam. This exam determined your fate for EVER, supposedly. If you passed it you went to grammar school and were generally deemed to be Clever and to have a bright future ahead of you. If you failed it, however, you went to a Secondary Modern school and didn't generally attempt any of the exams which might get you into university.

So your future was decided at the age of eleven. Or - in my case, since I was a July birthday and very young in the year group - ten.

There was a general feeling in my primary school that Daphne ought to pass the eleven plus - - certainly would in English - - probably would in the so-called "Intelligence" test (stop laughing now, people) - - was very likely to in Mechanical Arithmetic (otherwise known as Sums What You Wrote Down). But in mental arithmetic, Daphne was slow. Slooooooooooooow.

This was partly because I liked to take my time, work things out, write things down - - and partly because I'd go off into Daydream World and distract myself on a beach somewhere.

But the venerable Mr Storey wasn't going to permit it. Nobody in his class ever failed the Eleven Plus because he'd find out their weakness and hammer it until it was sorted.

So he made me do hundreds and thousands and millions and squillions of Mental Arithmetic until I could do them in my sleep. In fact I can still do them now. Twelve buns at tuppence ha'penny? Half a crown. (The Dozens Rule. Twelve pence in a shilling. So twelve of them at two and a half pence makes two and a half shillings - - or half a crown, as it was then known. Anyone with me? - - no, I thought not.)

What's forty pence in shillings? Three and fourpence. How many yards in a chain? Twenty two. How many pounds in a hundredweight? A hundred and twelve.

So yes, eventually I got all this information stored in my head and was able to produce it instantly, at will, and add it and divide it and multiply it too. It was very useful at the time - - because I passed the eleven-plus.

I have to say that it hasn't been very useful at any time since, not in ANY WAY AT ALL. Something to do with decimalisation.

But I continued, in my school life, to be a Tortoise rather than a Hare. Always the last to be changed after games. Always the last to finish any piece of sewing. I once took six weeks to put a zip in a dress. It was a good zip, mind. Probably still in a drawer somewhere, perfectly capable of still being zipped. Nestling next to my hand-sewn buttonholes, which took me most of the year to do.

I still notice my slowness even now. I did a typing test the other day - just over fifty words a minute. Now non-typists will think that's fast - - - but I touch-type, for goodness' sake and should be faster. I type all day, every day. Just not very fast.

And, of course, I could never run fast. Or even walk fast. I am slow at just about everything - - though, in general, accurate. I am a slooooow pedantic checker of things. If you want something done slowly and carefully, ask me. But if it needs to be done fast, please ask someone else.

What I do have, though, is a kind of dogged persistence in most things and quite a bit of physical stamina.

So, when I'm swimming, quite a few people get in the pool some time after me, zoom up and down the pool at top speed doing front crawl and then get out again whilst I'm still ploughing up and down doing breast stroke.

But I like my slowish pace. It allows me to think and ponder and daydream and zone out completely if I want to. My stroke's pretty good so I don't have that excuse - - it's just that I'm not very fast.

And I don't care. Well - - I don't care - - or thought I didn't - - BUT - - When I first started doing the mile a few weeks ago, it took me an hour and eight minutes. Now that I've got a bit more used to it I seem to have speeded up. Yesterday it took me an hour and two minutes and I wasn't conscious of trying to go faster.

So, yes, I'm a tortoise. Always slow, I'll get there in the end, I don't care about the speed. Except I'd really like to be able to swim a mile in under an hour. Even tortoises have their targets. I'll let you know how I get on.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Lost Wallet

When I was about ten, we were walking in the Lake District and when we'd got as high as we were going to get, we stopped for a little sit down.

I took my beloved Instamatic 100 camera from round my neck and placed it on the ground beside me.

Then I set off down the mountain and left it behind.

It took some time for me to notice, probably because I'd used up my ration of photos - those were the days when if you were given a roll of film that would take 24 photos for the week, you thought you were doing really well.

When I did notice, of course, I was really upset because it was by now too late in the day to set off up the mountain again.

So you may imagine my joy and relief when I spotted my camera, coming towards us round the neck of a couple who had found it and - amazingly - recognised me.

I don't leave things behind or lose things a great deal - I hate the consequences far too much. I remember how upset I was for that hour when I thought my camera was gone for ever!

Today, on his way back from work, Stephen found a wallet in the snow.

He had gone on his bike, as he usually does - six miles there, six miles back - - yes, I know! Hero or lunatic, depending upon your point of view - and when he got to work he found that the heating was broken so the place was freezing. So everyone came home early - and that meant that it was still light, and he saw the wallet lying by the side of the road.

It was sopping wet. Stephen just left it closed and was about to ring the police but I am far nosier so was inside it in a flash, looking for an address.

I found one, on a prescription. I also found two very soggy ten-pound notes and a credit card.

Clearly a loss, not a robbery, then!

So we rang the police, and they rang the owner, who was absolutely delighted as he had lost it - amazingly - last Thursday, and had given up all hope of ever seeing it again. He had driven off with it on the top of his car, where it had clearly stayed until he went round a roundabout, a couple of miles from his house.

And, since then, it had been buried in the snow, but today it's starting to thaw and the wallet had made its dramatic reappearance.

So Wallet Man came round to collect it after work and tried to give us a few quid for a drink, which was nice of him, but we refused of course.

There was never in any doubt in our minds about whether we'd ring the police, and that pleased me - we're as honest as we like to think we are.

Hmm - - yes - - but perhaps, for twenty quid, we can afford to be. What would we have done if there'd been a hundred pounds? A thousand?

I'm sure Stephen would still have handed it in, and so would I. Partly because I'd want the owner to have it back, thinking of how I felt about my camera. But if that didn't make me do it, it would be because - - as that chap Hamlet once remarked - conscience does make cowards of us all. My conscience just wouldn't let me keep it - I'd feel terrible, probably every waking moment, for ever.

I blame my parents for bringing me up this way. I'm just not cut out for a life of crime.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Oh Yes We Did!

Bradford looked very dark and gloomy against the snow. It's a city made mostly of stone, a lot of it Victorian and covered in years of grime, and it never - to me at least - presents a very jolly front. I assoicate it with interesting work in the old hospitals and then a tedious trek back to Leeds in rush-hour traffic afterwards.

But today we were off to the pantomime with Gareth's delightful sister Jo and her excellent fiance Ian. Olli and Gareth will go another time - they were busy with some kind of Snowfest in York.

My friend Jay Worthy was an Ugly Sister in Cinderella at Bradford Alhambra Theatre last year, and we loved it, so we were back to see him as the Giant's henchman Fleshcreep in Jack and the Beanstalk.

As with last year - - and lots of years - - the pantomime starred Billy Pearce as Jack - - or Buttons - - or whatever that loveable-lad-seeking-girlfriend role is in any particular pantomime.

He's a seasoned Panto Man and knows how to warm up an audience in about three seconds flat. We were, of course, ready to be warmed up and to shout "Hiya Jack" whenever he came onstage.

Big spectacular pantos - as this was - work best when they're not built around some telly star who's never set foot on a stage, and that was most certainly the case here. All the leading cast were proper panto actors - who can all sing, dance, ad-lib and cope with anything that's thrown at them.

I hate it in pantos when members of the audience are humiliated and that didn't happen here. Okay, a bloke in a box was greeted with the line "hey, you've spent all day doing your hair and then you forgot to bring it with you!" But it was all very good-humoured. At one point we were given giant snowballs to throw around - some the size of beach balls, some absolutely massive - and, as an audience, we were in heaven.

In fact, we were in heaven all the way through - it held everyone's attention from the little children to the grandparents. It was excitingly scary - but never too much! - and very spectacular, with magic tricks, circus performers and - er - a real cow which seemed completely unfazed by the bustle around it.

I know that panto is a genre that's peculiarly British and hence rather hard to explain to people from abroad - if that's you, I so wish I could take you to see this one! It says a lot about the British character - - we like humour (and a bit of seaside-postcard Smut! - "I've made a terrible mistake, as the Dalek said as he got off the dustbin" was one example that I rather liked) song and dance, spectacle, baddies to boo, heroes to cheer and lots of costume changes and colour to warm us up in the dull British winter.

Grateful thanks to Jay and to all involved. There's an excellent review of it here. If you've never seen a pantomime, and you're anywhere near Bradford, you should go and see this one. And if you've seen lots of pantomimes, and think you're hard to impress - - well, you should go and see this one.

You might find it hard to get a ticket, mind. It was packed. It deserved to be.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

In the Snow of Long Ago

Olli and Gareth spent some time in the early hours of this morning sliding - with some friends - down an icy slope in York.

They didn't have a sledge so decided to use Gareth, who didn't seem to mind slithering down the slope with a couple of people sitting on him.

They came to our house eventually and this morning Gareth got up early with the idea of building a basic sledge out of some of the pieces of wood which are to be found in our garage and cellar (because the Communist loved bits of old wood and was always making things out of them, and there are plenty left.)

However, I pointed out that there were some bits of wood in the cellar which already were made into a sledge. My old sledge.

So Gareth found the old sledge and cleaned it up a bit:


And there it was, ready to go.

I always think of it as the new sledge, even though we bought it in - I'd guess - about 1964. Before that I had a little red wooden one, and I loved it but I grew out of it.

This one was much bigger, and two of us could ride on it together.

We would all go: my parents, my brother and I. Off to Roundhay Park as soon as there was a decent covering of snow. Scarves, gloves, hats, boots, thick jumpers, coats. In the mid-sixties those ski pants with a strap under the foot were fashionable - they were great for sledging in too.

We would take it in turns to have goes in twos - my mother and my brother. My mother and me. Me and my brother. The Communist and my brother. The Communist and me. My mother and the Communist. Wheeeeeeeeeeeeee!

It was great. I loved it, whizzing down the slope to the Arena at the bottom, dodging the trees, dodging the other sledges. There's be dozens of us. Sometimes hundreds.

I would have loved to have gone on my front on the sledge but never could because of my glasses. I was worried about crashing and breaking them - but without them couldn't have seen well enough to see where I was going.

But that was my only regret. Otherwise, I loved every moment.

We'd stay until we couldn't feel our hands and feet and then we'd trudge back to the car park, exhilarated, and go home for some hot food, hoping the snow would stay until the next weekend.

I would have expected to go sledging with any children of mine. I just expected it to happen.

But it never did. The snows of the Sixties and Seventies melted away. After Olli was born, in 1989, substantial snowfall happened only rarely. My parents took Olli a couple of times - I think I must have been working. I always thought there'd be more opportunities - - but there weren't.

I regret it a lot now, though it's great to see the grown-up Olli and Gareth enjoying the snow.

These days, I just don't like snow. I suppose it's a sign of me getting older, and I don't like that either. Snow is cold and it's slippery and I keep worrying about my mother with her nearly-mended shoulder. She keeps sneaking out of the house whenever I'm not looking, because she really wants to build a snowman.

But given the choice between the blazing heat in Rome last summer, and the pretty snow in England this winter - - oh, bring on the heat!

I loved the sledge. I expected those sledging trips to the park to go on for ever. When things are good, I always expect them to go on for ever. And then I'm always surprised when they don't. It was such fun, in the snow of long ago.

Friday, January 08, 2010

In a World Gone White

It's a whole new world of snow. The wild birds, of course, have never seen anything like it in their lifetimes and the last Big Freeze - as the media are now calling it - was many generations of sparrows and bluetits ago.

Olli and Gareth's year-old cat Wendy is spending a lot of time trying to catch all these birds as they come to the bird table to pick up all the food I've been putting out for them. Seed mix, peanuts, dried mealworms, fat balls and anything else that birds might like such as bits of old mince pies. I spend quite a bit of time replenishing their water supply too.

Wendy, being a mix of colours including ginger, shows up rather nicely on a white background as she pretends to be a lion stalking the zebras. The birds wait until she's nearly within jumping distance and then laugh and fly away.

Froggie, our cat, who is much older than Wendy, prefers to watch it all from a safer vantage - indoors, on top of the windowsill, on top of the radiator.

I've been on my own in the actors' agency office most days this week. Yes, I've bravely struggled in. Down the stairs and turn right. Several casting directors who've rung me have said "Ooh, you're the only agent who's managed to get to the office today." I didn't explain about the office being in our house. I just let them admire my bravery.

So I've been doing a lot of the jobs that require lots of concentration, such as financial stuff. Yesterday I overdid it rather and was absolutely exhausted by the evening - it takes it out of you, doing Sums.

First thing this morning, though, I decided, under threat of more snow, to brave the supermarket. The local Sainsbury's, which I christened Smelly Aisle because of the terrible stench of death and decay that lingered for weeks in one of the aisles following a refurbishment. I think they must have lost at least one builder in there somewhere.

They were facing a serious threat - a loss of profits! - and had therefore hired various snowplough-type things to take the snow away from the car park.

But it was too late to prevent lots and lots of snow being tramped inside. And then someone dropped a jar of marmalade, and suddenly the whole of Smelly Aisle had become Sticky Aisle. Everyone wandered round going Schloop! Schloop! as their feet stuck to the floor on each step.

They kept broadcasting helpful announcements to tell us that snow can really be quite slippery. Sometimes I do wonder what they think about their customers' intellectual capacities. They didn't mention any possible danger from marmalade, though. I could see the potential for a very tricky court case there.

Lots of schools are closed. The resulting outbreak of children didn't want to be in Sticky Aisle. They wanted to be out enjoying healthy childish outdoor pursuits such as throwing snowballs at cars. A good number of parents were making me think about Jack Dee's line "Why do parents take their children to supermarkets to hit them?"

"Be good!" I heard them shouting at their two-year-olds. I can imagine that, to a two-year-old, this is a fairly unspecific instruction. Does "be good" mean "take lots of things off the shelves, one after the other, just like your parent does"? Apparently not. Does it mean "shout loudly and run up and down"? Seemingly, no. Does it mean "see if the wet floor is as slippy as the ice is outside"? No, really it doesn't. Does it mean "jump up and down in the marmalade and then see what it tastes like"? No, not that either.

But I have to say that I'm rather on the two-year-old's side here. If you're two I think you need the advice to be more clear. Perhaps what to do rather than what not to do.

Tomorrow it'll still be snowy outside. The children will be playing in the snow - and, judging from the number of perfect snow Daleks about, quite a few adults will be too. But, having done my share of panic-buying and stocked up in case the Big Freeze leads to the Great Siege, I shall be staying at home. And doing my tax return. Sometimes it's hard to be a grown-up.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Dead Chuffed

Well - - *blushes modestly* - - I've been given a couple of blog awards recently.

Firstly, the excellent (even though he does live in Sheffield) Yorkshire Pudding awarded me Blogger of the Year 2009 and here is my award:

I'm never sure what the etiquette is. Fail to mention it and it looks as though you don't care or aren't interested or have no respect for the person who gave it to you. Mention it too much and it looks as though you're showing off (and I AM showing off, so there!)

So I just kind of mentioned it in passing, almost, not being sure what to do.

But then the excellent Milo of The Year Zero gave me his Best Blog of 2009 award.
Right-click here to download pictures. To help protect your privacy, Outlook prevented automatic download of this picture from the Internet.
And I thought - - d'you know what, I'm dead chuffed (as they say round here) to be given both of these, and I'm going to say so! Because they both came from bloggers whom I respect, and both write very well themselves.

It was my friend John who first pointed me in the direction of Blogger, and I started blogging initially in order to tell the world (!!) about the injustice of The Story of the Hedge. There have been significantly greater injustices in the world - and indeed in my world! - since, but it was the first time that it hit me - - HEY! THE WORLD'S NOT FAIR!

But, by 'eck, blogging has brought me masses of good things, and not one bad one. I love writing, always have done. Hurrah for blogging! And thank you, Mr Pudding and Milo - much appreciated!

The Old Pear Tree

Here's the old pear tree in our garden, covered in blossom, with forget-me-nots at its feet:

Here's a close-up against the blue sky:

Ahh yes - - but today, the blossom is made of snow.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

The Result

I had a routine mammogram recently and the result was fine: I got a letter about it today.

However, I think it was not entirely clever of them to fold the letter so that as I took it out of the envelope the bit that I saw first read "evidence of breast cancer has been shown".

It took only a couple of seconds for me to unfold it and find the bit that said "I am pleased to tell you that no" in front of the previously-quoted phrase.

A lot can happen in two seconds, and in my case I'm just pleased that it wasn't a heart attack.

All Things Bright and Beautiful

I don't usually get involved in discussions about religion. As you may know if you've read this blog before, I'm not religious - - and yet I do believe in the ethos behind the Ten Commandments.

If everyone just did their best to follow those, then the world would be a far better place. End Of.

My problem, however, is with people who try to bend so-called religious beliefs to make them fit with whatever they feel like doing, or feel like believing.

I always enjoyed singing hymns at school and one of my favourites was All Things Bright and Beautiful.

I sang two different tunes at school, one at primary school and one at secondary school, and I liked them both. Here's Harry Secombe singing an arrangement of the version that we used to sing at primary school:



But he's missed out at least one of the verses, with the lines that our little childish voices used to sing:

The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate
God made them high or lowly, and ordered their estate

That's just some Victorian's way of trying to get the masses to believe that their grinding poverty was all God's idea. Infuriating, vile and just plain wrong.

At the madder end of the spectrum of so-called religious belief are this lot, the Westboro Baptist Church.

I saw a television programme about them a few months ago and everything they believe is - to me - so deeply wrong that I just don't know where to start with it.

The main tenet of their beliefs seems to be not love of God, or even love of mankind - - but hatred of homosexuals. They spend most of their time protesting about homosexuality in a rather lurid way. Here's their jolly Christmas song:



It particularly bothers me that they're involving their children in it all. Of course, anyone with strong religious or political beliefs tends to do that. The Communist had a pretty good try with me - - though it didn't work.

But bringing up children to hate, rather than to love - as this lot are trying to do - is totally abhorrent to me. These bonkers Baptists are just one ridiculous side alley of all the many mad beliefs that are about.

I think it would be good if everyone, religious or not, could just try to work towards - well - all things bright and beautiful.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Time for the Scarf

Yes, yes, seen it all before. All over the internet. All over the news. Apparently the street where I live even made it onto the BBC Breakfast News this morning.

No, not this street: this is the side road, glimpsed from our bedroom window. But the front street was on the national news, I'm told. Just to show people what WHITE looks like.

Anyway, SNOW. Yes, lots and lots of it today. It just carried on snowing, almost like a proper winter. Olli and Gareth have never seen anything like it. Mind you, they're young, you know: they think Dr Who is David Tennant.

But, of course, he's not. Not any more, and actually, the real Dr Who was always Tom Baker. And in Tom Baker's incarnation of Dr Who, which lasted from 1974 - 1981, he wore a really, really long scarf.

He set a trend. Everyone wanted one, including me. So I knitted my own, but I didn't bother with stripes. I relied instead on subtle colouring and a natural sense of style.

So, since we haven't had much of a proper winter for years and years, and now we have got one with snow and ice and lots of British stoicism, I thought it was time to bring out The Scarf.

And here it is, being modelled for you by my lucky husband Stephen who was thrilled to have the opportunity to adopt this glamorous pose by the kitchen cupboard.

I did offer him the chance to wear The Scarf whilst cycling to work tomorrow but for some reason he turned me down.

In case you want to make your own - and I'm sure you will - here is the recipe or whatever you call it with knitting:

1) Buy lots of wool
2) Cast on lots of stitches
3) Knit one, purl one until you run out of wool, or until someone tells you that it's July.
4) Cast off. Make tasselly things for the ends. No, I can't remember how - do I have to tell you everything? I'm sure it's on t'interclacker somewhere. We never had t'interclacker in t'Seventies, you know. We had to rely on runic writing scratched in the earth with a stick.

There's no need to thank me. If you've enjoyed this small glimpse into the superior world of Seventies culture, then that is satisfaction enough for me.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

What's This?

Gareth's lovely sister Jo and her excellent fiance Ian went to France for Christmas and they brought me this back.

What is it? It's a French letter rack, of course. A rack for keeping letters in. From France.

I'm glad that's clear. If you're not smirking at this, you're very probably not British and may have to google it to see why I am smirking. (That, and the fact that I have a very smutty sense of humour.)

Soccer One, Ironing Nil

Right, here's something that I have learned today and it is this. You can't watch football and iron clothes at the same time.

I knew it was a key match - Leeds United versus Manchester United in the FA Cup. Now, there's no real history of soccer-watching in our house - - my mother was brought up on Rugby because that's what they played in Barrow-in-Furness, where she lived. The Communist wasn't really interested in sport - his game was politics. I like watching tennis - - gymnastics - - running - - swimming - - but at school I was never any good at team sports and I've never got into watching them either.

But I thought I'd watch this, and do some ironing at the same time. Leeds have had some good results recently and I thought I'd see what all the fuss was about.

Now, personally, I'd find it hard enough to run from one end of a soccer pitch to the other taking a football with me using only my feet, and to kick it past the goalkeeper into the net at the other end. But - worse - they have another team whose job is to stop you doing it, and to do the same thing but the other way round.

That's all I know, really. But for this match, I didn't need to know much else.

Leeds, of course, were expected to lose and Manchester United to win.

But Leeds have, as I mentioned, had some good results recently and looked both confident and determined. And then, after nearly twenty minutes, Jermaine Beckford of Leeds United kicked the ball towards the goal and a weird thing happened, which I noticed again in the last few minutes of the match. Time slowed down. The ball glided gently towards the goal and there was nothing at all to stop it going in. But, I swear to you, it took about half an hour to get there.

So, one nil to Leeds. The Leeds fans were very pleased but the commentators said knowingly that this wouldn't be the end of it, oh no, there'd be plenty more goals to come.

I'd never really taken on board how exciting and scary it would be. Every time a Manchester player got his feet anywhere near the ball my heart lurched. And I'm not a footy fan, just a Leeds Woman of a Certain Age, trying to get the ironing done.

Except I couldn't. Because I knew if I took my eyes off the screen Wayne Rooney would get the ball and I felt it was my task to stop him by keeping a fierce eye on it.

I enjoy watching out for body language and indeed use it a lot in my work. And oh boy, there was plenty here! I loved it! One shrug that quite clearly meant "Did you see THAT? Did the referee NOT see that? Oh, the injustice!"

Then it was the interval. Oh, sorry, half-time I think they call it. I'm used to watching plays, you see, not football.

And then suddenly it was two-thirds over, and there hadn't been any other goals. The commentator pointed out, truthfully, that the attitude of the Leeds fans had now subtly changed. They had gone from "Hurrah! We scored a goal!" to "Goodness me! We might win this!" (They probably didn't word it quite in that way, but I think you get the gist).

Manchester's boss Alex Ferguson asked how much extra time there'd be and I could tell from his expression that he was hoping for a couple of hours, or until Manchester United won, whichever of these happened more quickly.

Five minutes was what there was. But only the first three of them lasted a minute. The final two minutes lasted about twenty minutes each. Manchester United nearly scored and I found myself shouting at the screen.

And, finally, the whistle went and I'm sorry if you didn't want to know this but it was one-nil to Leeds. OH yes!

Now then, I'm a quiet, respectable (stop it now) middle-aged woman watching from the comfort of my living room and I was really getting very worked up about it. No wonder that testosterone-fuelled twenty-year-old blokes go and create mayhem when their team loses!

I can only compare it to what I know. And therefore, it was like this. Imagine that you loved Shakespeare, and had never seen Hamlet, and then suddenly saw a brilliant production of it, without knowing the ending in advance.

Yes, I loved it. But I am never, ever going to be a soccer referee when I grow up.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Pandatronic and Robofish

For millions and millions of years the alligators had been lurking by the side of the water, not changing very much at all, as everything else evolved around them.

"We don't need to change," they said. "We're fine as we are."

But a large black and white life-form which had been evolving like crazy all this time looked at them superciliously.

"You just wait and see," it said. "You're fine now, but I have a hunch that these monkey-like things called human beings are going to take over. And then I'll triumph. Whereas you, sunshine, will be a pair of shoes with matching handbag. Because I've cracked it. I know how to make them care. I look just like one of their babies, only cuter, and with even bigger eyes. They'll do anything to save me."

Yes, here we have it. The panda. This one's been all over the internet but it's still Very Cute Indeed:



Naturalist Chris Packham got into trouble recently for saying that the panda has gone down an evolutionary cul-de-sac, and should be allowed to die out with dignity.

Although I think it would be a shame if it did, I can see his point. Masses of money and resources are put into saving the panda and I'm sure that's at the expense of many other species. And why? Because it's cute, that's why!

Yes, if you're a species that wants to be helped to survive as Mankind goes round trashing the planet, it really helps if you look all cute and cuddly with a flat face like a human baby, and big eyes. The panda's really got it sussed. Notice how it emphasises the size of its eyes with a black ring round them? How cunning is that?

But really - - they're only just keeping a toehold on life. Their diet is not nutritious and deeply boring. They can't even be bothered to have sex half the time. I know that we're trying to help them survive, but it would be good if they put in a bit of effort themselves.

Here, on the other hand, is a new and interesting species - - Robofish!



It's a bit creepy. It's more like a fish than some fish I've met. Probably more intelligent, too - it was apparently designed to help find pollution in the sea.

Apparently goldfish only have an attention span of two seconds and I've sometimes worried idly that they spend their whole lives swimming round thinking "Now what was I - - ? Now what was I - - - ?"

Back to the panda, which is so bored with constantly having to eat tons of dull bamboo shoots that it's lost all its libido. So, my question to you is - - if the panda does die out, would an animatronic one have more fun?

Friday, January 01, 2010

Happy New Year

Many thanks to all of those of you who have read this blog in 2009. I always enjoy writing it and I'm always delighted when people who read it leave comments.

If the comment's from a fellow blogger, I'll always read your blog and I have found several blogs that I read regularly that way.

And I love getting comments from Anonymous who has left me lots of great comments this year (and, perhaps surprisingly, only one abusive one which was ranting about Communism - - well, to that particular Anonymous, my blog isn't about Communism!) But a warm hello to, for example, Lucy, who has left some great comments.

Many thanks as well to Mr Pudding for the award that the Yorkshire Pudding Blog Awards kindly gave me - much appreciated!

I won't list all my favourite bloggers - I'll be bound to miss some out! And there are one or two who I haven't even put on my blogroll because I'm remarkably technically inept and rarely update it - I must try to sort that out for the New Year.

But thank you, all of you bloggers, for bringing me such interest and enjoyment over the past twelve months - please keep on blogging in 2010!

And a very Happy New Year to you all.