Saturday, September 30, 2006

Quality of Life

Helaina’s been visiting us today, bringing her parents with her: my cousin Colin and his wife Kath.

I have written about Helaina before: she has Costello’s Syndrome, which is a rare genetic condition with a predisposition to many health problems: heart problems, curvature of the spine, cancer – Helaina has had cancer twice – speech problems and slow development.

Helaina learned sign language when she was two and began speaking when she was five or six. Now she is twelve, though at first glance looks much younger because she is tiny. Here she is with my mother who is only four feet ten herself:

Emily plans to study Helaina’s speech as part of her English Language A-level and Helaina and her parents kindly allowed us to record her this afternoon.

It takes a bit of getting used to, talking to Helaina, because although her speech is indistinct (she has problems forming the words) once you tune in to it you realise that what she is saying are the comments of a much older child, and she has a very mischievous look which is never far away.

She loves books and spent a lot of time looking at some of Emily’s. Here she is concentrating on an electronic reading game:

There is a speech “window” in development and, if children miss it – such as the rare cases of children who have never been spoken to – they simply can’t catch up. Helaina, however, is catching up – perhaps because, when little, she couldn’t form the words to speak but nevertheless listened to everything that was going on.

So, a child with multiple handicaps and two very dedicated parents. But, having been handed what at first appears to be a really terrible hand in life, Helaina has also been given some compensation for all her problems. She has a very endearing, outgoing personality and an excellent sense of humour. Everybody likes her.

Here she is with the Communist – she readily agreed to pose for the photograph.

Problems, yes. Quality of life? Certainly. Look at that smile.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Last Parents' Evening

You think it’ll go on forever, like a lot of things in life. Parents’ evenings at school. One minute, it seems, they’re telling you how well little Emily’s doing with her reading, and then suddenly she’s in Year 13 and tonight has been The Last Parents’ Evening.

The rest have all blurred into one memory of waiting on chairs to see teachers, half-recognising other parents, catching the occasional word of what’s being said to them.

In Emily’s early years it was simple: you all queued up to see the primary school teacher. Then, in her early years of secondary school, vast queues formed to see the teachers and we had to negotiate long, crowded corridors of the old Roundhay Girls’ School and Roundhay Boys’ School. Now these have all gone, replaced by one new building, but I find it hard to remember this and as I approach the school I expect to see the old parquet floors and brick walls.

Some children accompany their parents but Emily wouldn’t ever want to come to one and I think this is the correct attitude. When I was teaching, years ago, I hated it when children came too: sometimes a quiet word with the parents is what’s needed along the lines of “Give Peter more encouragement and praise, that’s all he needs” and it’s hard to say that when Peter’s sitting next to them.

Emily has had some superb teachers over the years (and one or two really dreadful ones) and they’re all expected to be there at Parents’ Evening. Stephen pointed out that if his work – a computer company – wanted him to work late, firstly they would ask him nicely, and secondly they’d pay him overtime.

So, the Last Parents’ Evening for us. It’s the end of an era. I’ll miss it. The teachers’ comments? - - Well, they made me smile.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Contains Swearing

This piece is about swearing and as such will contain lots of examples. So if you are offended by swearing, please don’t read on.

I love swearing, and this is often a surprise to people as, being a grammar school girl and all, I seem to radiate Respectability without quite knowing how, or wanting to.

The best swear words are the ones with a good, explosive sound. Bastard! Cunt! Bollocks! Many of them come from Anglo-Saxon: Latinate swearing is never so good. Fuck is of course the best, with its slow start and then the climactic “ck” at the end. The Latin equivalent, Copulate, has never caught on as a swear word.

I don’t like that coy, fake swearing that for some reason people think is more acceptable than the real thing – Chuffing hell! Naff off! We know what you mean, and you meant Fucking Hell and Fuck Off.

I don’t like coy euphemisms either. “I don’t mind fuck, but I don’t like the c-word” someone said to a friend of mine.
We know what you meant, and you meant Cunt. So, having reminded us of its existence, why can’t you say it properly? Will you turn into a pumpkin or something?

Newspapers do it too. Still, in 2006! They think if they put st*rs instead of v*w*ls then we won’t be offended by the word sh*t, whereas, in fact, I’m offended by the fact that they think I’m such a c*nt as to be so easily offended.

Swearing has two purposes, I think. Firstly, to express anger. A good burst of swearing is a good first stage before getting to throwing things: and might help us never to get to the throwing things stage.

“Damn Damn Damn Damn Shit Tits and Bugger!” a friend of mine once memorably exclaimed.

That’s the second purpose: swearing is great for comic effect. Yes, my friend was angry, but the outburst above made us all laugh. The Sunshine Boys were right when they said “words with k in are funny” and “fucking” neatly placed in a sentence can be very funny indeed.

There are some uses of swearing that I don’t like, though. The first is when people just insert a swear word every other word, because they think it makes them seem cool, or just because of lack of vocabulary, or because they want to shock, or because they’ve just got used to speaking like that and no longer know why they do it.

“I went down the fucking supermarket and bought some fucking washing-up liquid and then I went to the fucking café and bought a cup of fucking coffee.”

That’s just boring.

I don’t like swearing AT people generally, either. When I was teaching – and I taught in some seriously rough schools! - no student ever told me to fuck off, because I would probably have committed murder on the spot, and I guess they sensed it.

I really don’t like it when small children swear. I have been watching Supernanny on television and it’s really sad to see how the children parrot the phrases they have heard the adults say: “Fuck off you fat bitch”, “You’re a cunt” or even “Talk to the hand” with an appropriate gesture. Though I did find it amusing when one child paused for a while to try to find the worst words he could muster, and then rather cautiously came out with “Fart-face”. But in generally, when you hear children swearing at other people with words they don’t understand, it shows the sad atmosphere of conflict that surrounds them for much of their lives.

One of our favourite childhood jokes was to ask someone to repeat:
“I chased a bug ay-round a tree.”
Of course they said,
“I chased a bug around a tree.”
Then we could leap up and down going “Ooh! You said bugger! You said bugger!”
That’s about the level of swearing that children should be at.

My current favourite swearing phrase is on a site full of Latin (and cod-Latin) phrases:


which means


Even saying it in Latin is great:

“Hello, I’m ringing from Bodgit Kitchens Direct - - “
“Futue Te et Ipsum Caballum.”
“Errr - - ?”
“Futue Te et Ipsum Caballum.”
“Errr - - Goodbye.”

Say nothing else. It works a treat.

Swear in anger: swear for comic effect: but swear sparingly and well. It’s too good to waste.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Dream poem

I have mentioned before that I sometimes dream verses and last night I dreamed another one. This one, whilst touching on my dislike of getting older, neatly brings me back to my childhood ambition, which I know came from watching Johnny Morris at Bristol Zoo in Animal Magic on television.

I'm growing up, not old, and when I do
I'm going to be a keeper in a zoo.

(and, if given a choice, I'm looking after the rhinos)

Hollow tree

Hollow trees feature in lots of stories and I've always been rather interested in them: they have an air of mystery to them, providing homes for all sorts of creatures, big and small, from woodlice to bats. Here's one near Kettlewell in the Yorkshire Dales:

I like its moss and its feeling of history.

The hole was only a couple of inches across: here's inside:

Like a cave on a smaller scale.

Monday, September 25, 2006

See you when you're eighteen, darling

Apparently the Secretary of State for Education, and possible challenger to Gordon Brown for the Labour leadership, is called Alan Johnson. I have to confess he had made little – oh , all right, no – impression upon me until this weekend when he came up with an Idea.

And it is this: How about opening State schools on a Saturday as well! For more extracurricular activities such as art, music, drama and dance, as well as catch-up lessons at weekends. (my highlighting and I am saying nothing yet, though I expect you can see the red mist forming before my eyes. I am merely telling you what he proposes).

And, further, he is “seriously considering” raising the school-leaving age to eighteen because “too many youngsters still had little in the way of training or qualifications” (The Sunday Times).

So, let us combine this with the initiative I wrote about the other day, where schools are to open from 8am to 6pm every weekend for parents to dump their kids, sorry, I mean "enrich their children’s lives with wonderful activities".

Pretty soon you’ll be able to drop your kids off at school at age five, folks, and never see them again until they’re legally able to vote!

What does he plan that all these children should do on Saturdays? And how on earth is this to be staffed? Simply by extending the teachers’ working week? I don’t think so: apparently teachers’ union leaders have reacted “coolly” to the suggestion. (Quelle surprise). So they’d need lots of extra teachers, costing lots of extra money which could be far better spent on improving educational standards from Monday to Friday.

I come back to my argument from the other day: no matter how exciting and fun your job is – and, let’s face it, school is always exciting and fun, ask any teenager - would you like to do it on Saturdays too?

As for extending the school-leaving age, I rather suspect that Alan Johnson hasn’t totally thought that one through either, apart from the old adage that Teachers are Cheaper than Policemen. What new, exciting courses has he planned that will make less academic sixteen to eighteens happy to stay on at school? Errr - - well, none, yet.

Yes, of course there should be art, music and drama available to children and teenagers out of school hours, and sport (for those who like that sort of thing) and non-competitive outdoor activities such as sailing, canoeing, fell-walking, rock-climbing - - oh, if we have the money – and we do - let us spend the money on those life-enriching activities and not on keeping children in schools and buying a few extra sheets of sugar paper.

And now I come to how Alan Johnson phrased this exciting new suggestion:

“What you can do with Saturday schools is issues like the arts, music and dance, and broaden horizons, using that important time as an educational tool.”

Nobody who uses the word “issues” in that context should be Secretary of State for Education. Never, never, never.

I think I feel a letter to my MP coming on.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Tempus Fugit

I spend a lot of time with the over-eighties and in some ways they’re great. When they are open-minded and receptive to new ideas I want to cheer, and their bravery in the face of adversity is fantastic. There seems to be an acceptance by some of the medical profession that it’s okay to be in a lot of pain all the time if you’re over eighty: it’s somehow to be expected. Anyway, you're probably a bit forgetful so you might have forgotten that there was a whole hour last Thursday when you weren’t in pain at all. So that’s okay.

Much of the time I feel like a tiger – not defending my young, but defending my olds.
“I’m sorry, we can’t discuss your mother’s bank account until she gives us the pass numbers.”
“She is eighty-two and has had a stroke. She is very fit. She can walk five miles without noticing, which is probably more than you can do. However, she cannot say numbers in a sequence. Where do we go from here?”
“Errrr - - well - - “
Change to a different bank, was where we went.

But there are things old people do that are very, very exasperating: and I’m going to do them when I’m old, and so will you, unless we’re very different from all the old people I know.

I’m just going to tell you two of them, and they are CARS and RESTAURANTS.

The first thing is the seat belt thing.

You get in the car and you don’t do up your seat belt, because it’s a bit tricky.

“Have you fastened your seatbelt?” says the driver.

“No, but you’re all right, don’t worry.”

“It has to be fastened by law. Let me give you a hand.”

“Oh, no, I never bother and it’s never mattered. (Laughs) You’re not going to crash the car, are you?”

- - It can go on for minutes. It seems like hours.

However, once you get to your destination and the car stops, you make no attempt to either undo your seat belt or get out. You just carry on with the conversation. So the driver helpfully undoes it for you. You don’t appear to notice. You start a monologue with no pauses of the kind where a phrase like, “Oh look, here’s the park. Shall we get out?” can be inserted in the conversation.

- - It can go on for minutes. It seems like hours.

And then there’s the restaurant thing.

The prices are EXORBITANT. In Lyon’s Corner House during the war you could get a whole lunch for one and sixpence. How can they justify charging THIS MUCH for a sandwich?

Then, when it arrives, the portions are ENORMOUS. How could anyone eat so much? It’s just a terrible waste.

So for the next ten minutes it is impossible to have any kind of conversation because of the ceremony of the Handing Out of the Excess Food.

“ - - and there, in front of me, was a burglar.”

“Anyone want any carrots?”

“No thank you. And he was holding an axe.”

“Let me give you some peas.”

“No thank you, I’m fine. I nearly screamed, but luckily I kept my head and – “

“I’ve never seen so many chips. Here, have some. It’s ridiculous, the number of chips they give you.”

- - It can go on for minutes. It seems like hours.

And then, of course, they are amazed by how fast you eat.

“You can’t have finished already. I’ll be another half an hour eating this.”

Yes, yes, I know you will.

It must be hard to be eighty-something and find everything is awkward to open, and too heavy to lift, and happens too fast: and you know it can only get worse.

So it’s a defence mechanism. It’s not me that’s getting old, it’s hoovers that are getting heavier.

But it’s difficult to deal with – it’s hard to slow down to their pace, and not to get stressed by it all, and to pretend there’s all the time in the world.

For, of course, there isn’t much more time at all, not for them. When I find myself getting impatient, I think of that, and it does help a bit. I should be enjoying them while they’re here: I’ll be devastated when they’re gone, I know.

But sometimes, when I am in a hurry and they are being particularly slow, all that happens is that I feel guilty as well as impatient. Damn.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Point of Chihuahuas

I'm not too keen on monkeys, it's true: but generally I like all animals and enjoy looking after them. Like most human beings, I find many baby animals have an "aaaaah" quality. There are many pictures on that wallowing of cuteness, Cute Overload, which make me go "aaaaah" in spite of my best intentions to resist.

The baby animals I like the best are the big ones. Baby elephants, baby rhinos - they're so big and yet they think they're small and caper about like kittens, knocking trees over in the process.

Of course, puppies are generally very loveable - - but they have to be puppies that will grow into a proper kind of dog. Border collies, and all mongrel versions, are my favourites, such as my friend Connie's dog Gemma - half Border collie, half unidentified black dog - who was so good at reading your body language that you could show her off like mad by saying things like "Gemma, could you just run over to that tree, run round it and then come back again?"

But, being Mankind, we couldn't be happy once we'd achieved a few good breeds of dog, could we? Oh, no, we just had to keep going until we came up with the chihuahua.

Here's one photograph that sums up pretty much everything that's wrong with the human race:

Big American car: McDonalds cup: ridiculous breed of dog, bred as a dog for people who can't be bothered with a real one, and who think it's cute and funny to stuff the dog in the cup. Baby real animals doing real things are often both cute and funny. But the dog didn't climb into the cup, did it? This is a pose entirely set up for the camera: the dog isn't enjoying it and neither am I.

If the Interplanetary Court ever sees this photo, they will use it as evidence to send this entire planet to the Recycling Bin, and I don't blame them.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Equinoctial Fire

To celebrate the autumn equinox I went to a bonfire last night. It was a really warm evening which felt like summer - I was sitting outside at midnight without even wearing a jumper.

Fire's always interesting to watch:

and some interesting things were burned:

and a girl with a good sense of balance did this:

But don't try this at home, folks, because two minutes later this happened:

Though luckily the girl had stepped down just in time.

There was good conversation and lots of jumping over the fire: and Gareth's homebrew had its first public outing. There was music - many of the people there were musicians. In fact, never has so much creative talent gathered around one bonfire - musicians, artists, actors, dancers. I fall into a small but, I hope, necessary category: Delighted to Watch and Listen.

The bonfire has welcomed in the autumn and today it's much colder and has never stopped raining. And there are Christmas puddings in the shops.


A hot, windy day today with a perfect blue sky and at lunchtime I went for a walk in Meanwood Park. It has woods and a stream and wild places but when Emily was little she liked the playground too and we spent a lot of time there.

Here's the playground from a distance:

Swings, slides, a rocket that rocks backwards and forwards, a seesaw and a climbing frame. Let's look at the climbing frame a bit more closely:

Yes, it's a tank. Left to the children's imaginations, of course, a climbing frame could have been any one of a number of things: a castle, a tree, a house or even just a climbing frame. But someone on the council did their thinking for them and decided that a tank would be the perfect place to play.

It's not that I think children's play should be all soft and gentle: far from it, I think a bit of controlled aggression can help them get rid of both energy and angst (and boy will they need some boisterous play when they've been shut in school from eight in the morning until six at night, see previous post).

But there's something about giving children a municipally-provided tank to play with that I really don't like.

Hours we spent there, anyway, Emily and I, over the years, while she slid down the slides and swung on the swings and rocked on the rocket and climbed on the climbing frame (she ignored its tankness). I could picture her running around in her orange coat, deciding what to go on next.

Perhaps I shouldn't tell you, but I cried all the way home in the car for the loss of that delightful little girl: how strange that she's gone forever. Of course, once I got home, there she was: a delightful big girl, writing an essay about Stalin. That made me feel better.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Many people don't like snakes, or creatures with lots of legs. I do like snakes - as long as they're not poisonous - and I don't mind any insects or spiders. One friend always used to ring and ask me to go round whenever she needed saving from Death by Daddy-Long-Legs.

It's monkeys and apes, which many people like, that I find a bit creepy.

I don't like the word "simian" either, and I'm not sure why.

Here are two monkeys that were peering at me in the park recently.

That nearly-like-a-human-being-but-not-quite quality is what I'm not sure about.

As a child, I never liked the Chimps' Tea Party at the zoo and I always hated those television commercials for tea with all the chimpanzees dressed up as people. "Ah - look - they're so cute - they're just like us really, aren't they?"

Those commercials made me - still make me when I think about them - feel really uneasy. Fortunately, times have changed for the better in some respects and they are gone, along with the chimps' tea party.

We're fairly close, DNA-wise, to the big, generally placid vegetarian gorillas: but we're even closer to chimpanzees. We've always liked to think of chimps as cuddly, clumsy, affectionate childlike versions of ourself - witness Michael Jackson and his pet Bubbles.

They're not. The chimpanzees used in tea parties and commercials were all the younger ones - older chimpanzees were too unpredictable and aggressive.

Finally, after all the years of presenting cuddlychimpness to an adoring public, the public saw the first television documentary that showed the less-well-known side of chimpanzee behaviour. A group of chimpanzees chased some monkeys, caught them, tore them to pieces and ate them with evident relish.

Aah - they're just like us, really, aren't they?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Bring Back Childhood

This one seemed to have snuck past without my noticing. And now I’ve noticed, I’m hopping mad about it.

Within the next four years, all schools will have to open from 8am to 6pm. Apparently, Beverley Hughes, the Children’s Minister (Hah!) told The Times yesterday that this idea is so popular that 2,500 schools have already signed up to the idea.

The Times says, “The longer school day is designed to help working parents and to give children access to activities that they might not otherwise have.”

I think that’s the nub of it. It’s to help working parents (who might possibly be delighted and might subsequently vote Labour). I bet nobody asked the children if they’d like to spend longer hours at school, no matter what activities may be lined up for them.

A day seems much longer as a child than it does to an adult. If we were to suggest to adults that, as an exciting new initiative, after spending all day in the office they might like to stay in the office all evening with their workmates, I think I know what the answer would be.

Nick Seaton, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, disagrees with the idea.
“In many ways it is an abuse of children to stick them for that many hours of the day in school. Children need to get out and see the world,” he said.

Here’s Beverley Hughes again, on the other hand:
“Independent schools have always done this. They have given children opportunities to excel by offering them a wide range of activities.”

I note that “opportunities to excel”. If she’d said “opportunities to have fun” I might be more prepared to think that she has the children’s best interests at heart.

In practice, I can see these schemes being underfunded holding-pens for children whose parents are at work. What will the “activities” be? Rock-climbing? White-water rafting? I doubt it. Battered board games in the corner of a classroom? Probably. Unless there’s a lot of money spent on staff and equipment – and there won’t be, I tell you now – it’ll be the battered board games. For some children, it’ll be an opportunity to spend yet more time with children who’ve been bullying them all day.

For children who don’t excel at school – and there are many – these after-school activities will be just finding more ways of proving to all their peers how hopeless they are.

The best playtimes of my childhood were the non-adult-directed playtimes. Cycling aimlessly about for hours, practising figures of eight on my bike. Playing in the garden with my friend Jo, creating endless imaginary adventures. Cleaning out the pond (and hey, we didn’t drown!) Playing skipping games for hours. Marbles. Whip and top. Reading and reading on a rug on the lawn. Telling my mother “We’re playing out” and going off with my friends and coming back when it was teatime. Building dens. Drawing endless stories of islands with treasure. Getting the paddling pool out and splashing about all afternoon. Hopscotch. Climbing trees. Getting boats out on the park lake (we still didn’t drown).

It all sounds very idyllic and guess what? It was. And it’s all a necessary preparation for adulthood. Play is children’s work – it is vital for their development (thank you David who put it more or less in those words).

Childhood for so many children has become all computer games and being ferried by car between adult-directed activities. Keeping children in schools for endless hours is no preparation for an adult life of many choices and decisions. Bring back childhood!

Sunday, September 17, 2006

And the Greatest of These - -

The Communist doesn’t believe in charity. “The Government should do it,” he says. He thinks that all such events as Band Aid are just done for the self-aggrandisement of those taking part: that, if there is a famine elsewhere in the world, then we are a rich enough country to help them without having to have a street collection or whatever.

Further, he says, the more we have street collections or Children in Need or Band Aid then the less the Government will feel it has to do anything.

I think he’s partly right, as a matter of fact - - but then, sometimes being right doesn’t help. It’s hard to look at a starving African child and say sorry, I’m going to let you starve because if I give you this bag of food it sets a really bad precedent.

I’ve worked out (with some help from Ailbhe’s comment, and some enjoyment from John’s) what I think was wrong with Emily’s school selling off the school grounds as a car park for Robbie Williams fans, whilst closing the school for the day. The school made £5000 if you remember, and will use it to pay for trips for disadvantaged children.

If there are disadvantaged children who need trips – and, oh boy, I know there are – then paying for those trips by flogging the school fields as a car park for Robbie suggests that we, as a society, are taking the need for those trips rather less than seriously. I’m not blaming the school – they just saw the opportunity and went for it.

The trouble is, if we think that funding things by charity is the way to go about it, - and we seem to - then some charities will always do better than others. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution, for example. Brave men risking their lives to save brave seamen caught in storms! We like to think of ourselves as a country with a big seafaring tradition, and giving money to the RNLI is never going to be controversial (and don’t get me wrong, I think they are vital and should be properly funded).

But unglamorous charities such as those concerned with mental health issues are never going to do as well.

I’ve always been intrigued by the old suggestion of funding the Army entirely by charity, inviting the British people to have jumble sales to pay for soldiers and weapons, just like they currently do for children’s hospices.

“Well, done, Mrs. Norton-Scott! Your butterfly buns will pay for three pairs of boots for our boys!”

If it’s necessary, then the Government should pay for it. And, of course, that means us, through our taxes. Perhaps we should be given a choice of what our taxes go to. “I’ll give a hundred pounds to hospitals, another hundred to fund the schools, two thousand for abandoned dogs, three thousand to the RNLI - - “

It would never work. The Communist is right. The Government should do it. But we must make sure we tell the Government what’s important. If we care about disadvantaged children, we should make sure the Government knows that.

Saturday, September 16, 2006


Glory be to God for dappled things -

That's the first line of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem Pied Beauty and although I'm not really with him in the "praise God" stakes, I've always thought it was astute of him to notice how lovely dappled things are.

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

Too right, Gerard. I especially like dapples caused by the sunlight coming through things, as with the woodland floor, above.

Even one of our local roads looks good:

and here's Gledhow Woods in the Leeds suburbs:

I don't know why dappled woodland is so pleasing to the eye: perhaps it was that our woodland-dwelling ancestors liked it when they came out of the gloom of the forest into a clearing. Perhaps it's because they could see better and they could see that nothing was coming to eat them.

If you took a thousand people and showed them a piece of dappled woodland like this I don't think there'd be many who wouldn't like it: I'm sure that many of our likes and dislikes have their origins thousands of years ago.


The disaster at Aberfan was the first national disaster that I remember. It was in October 1966 and, following heavy rain, one of the huge heaps of slurry which had been tipped above this South Wales mining village slid down onto the village school, killing over a hundred children.

I was at primary school at the time and it really affected us all. It was hard to think of so many children – children just like us - being killed.

Tonight I watched a documentary about it, which focused on the attempts of the villagers to get the Coal Board to accept responsibility for what had happened. The Coal Board said that nobody could possibly have known that there was a spring on the hillside under the slurry, which was what finally washed the slurry down the slope.

Some of the surviving children of Aberfan, now in their forties, remembered playing in that very spring, before more slurry was tipped on it, covering it up.

Harold Wilson, then Prime Minister, visited the village immediately after the disaster and said, in the heat of the moment, that the rest of the slurry tips which loomed over the village should be removed. Then, after a while, the Government decided that this was too expensive.

The village set up a committee to try to get the heaps removed. The Government kept saying no. Finally, after one negative meeting too many, they left the council buildings in Cardiff and returned bearing bags of slurry which they tipped over the floor. The Government changed their minds and removed the slurry tips – but charged the villagers £150,000 for doing it.

The money was taken from all the money collected to help rebuild Aberfan after the disaster – money flooded in from all over the world and I remember having a collection at the primary school I attended.

In 1997 Tony Blair, in an oh-so-generous gesture, gave the villagers their money back. Of course, £150,000 in 1966 would now be worth about one and a half million, so in 1997 it must have been worth quite a lot.

What did they give the villagers? A million? No, only their original £150,000. I voted Labour, Tony, and I hoped for the dawn of a new era after all that Thatcherism. But even in 1997 you were behaving like a bastard.

The money is being used for the upkeep of the children’s graves.

One boy who died had done a drawing the night before he was killed. It showed the village, and the school, and the slurry heaps above the village. At the top of the picture he had written “The End.”

When I was ten, and I heard of this disaster, I thought of the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, where all the children vanished into the mountain and were never seen again. That’s what happened in Aberfan.

Friday, September 15, 2006

What it Says on the Tin

Here’s Mark Twain’s account of Tom Sawyer and the fence:

Tom appeared on the sidewalk with a bucket of whitewash and a long-handled brush. He surveyed the fence and all gladness left him, a deep melancholy settled down upon his spirit. Thirty yards of board fence nine feet high. Life to him seemed hollow, and existence but a burden. Sighing, he dipped his brush and passed it along the topmost plank; repeated the operation; did again; compared the insignificant whitewashed streak with the far-reaching continent of unwhitewashed fence, and sat down on a tree-box discouraged.

It’s a while since I read Tom Sawyer but this reminds me of what an excellent writer Mark Twain was – Huckleberry Finn is a fine novel too, which well deserves its status as a classic.

Our Tom Sawyer was a willing volunteer in the form of Gareth. With a cheery smile he went off to Bodge it Quick and chose a subtle shade with the peaceful name of Autumn Gold, very appropriate for the weather.

He opened the tin and reeled back in surprise, as did most of the population of North Leeds. Autumn Gold was in fact VERY BRIGHT ORANGE of a shade more often seen in advertising for mobile phones and cut-price airlines. “Okay, Stelios, I’ve finished this plane and we’ve got a couple of cans of paint left over. Let’s flog it to Bodge it Quick.”

Gareth was a bit concerned. “Daphne, look, it’s Fluorescent Orange.”

“Never mind, slap it on, it’ll fade in time.”

As Gareth painted the fence, the bits that were done looked, well, bright, in comparison to the bits that hadn’t been done.

But, strangely, when the whole length was done it didn’t look quite so bright, your eyes kind of got used to it, as long as you kept the dark glasses on and only looked at it at night.

He’s done all the outside now and only has the inside to do. I’m really rather getting to like it. And if you come to Leeds, our house is very easy to find.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Three things

A very Happy Birthday to the Communist who is 83 today. Most of his Communist friends have lived to a ripe old age too. Perhaps it's having something you believe in passionately that keeps you going.

On a more mundane note, here's my favourite bad joke of the moment:
What has a hundred legs and no teeth?
- The front row of a Cliff Richard concert.

So, having neatly linked old age and celebrities, I come back briefly to Robbie Williams, who is in Milton Keynes tonight, I hear.

When Robbie was in Leeds last week eleven schools had to close for the day because nobody could get to them.

Emily's school, which is very near to Roundhay Park where the concerts were taking place, had the bright idea of hiring out its car park to Robbie fans at £5 a car. The fans had paid £125 each for tickets so I suppose an extra fiver wasn't much.

The school made £5000 which apparently they are going to use for trips for disadvantaged children.

So the school is to be admired for its bright idea: but there's something about it that I don't like and I am finding it hard to work out exactly what.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Striding out

Last Sunday morning we went walking along the River Wharfe from Burnsall, heading in the direction of Kettlewell.

It was a glorious sunny morning and we managed to set off early, before everyone else did.

The river looked wonderful. Some parts were smooth and glassy:

and in other places the water rushed and whirled:

The river's quite wide here and you would never think that, just a few miles downstream near Bolton Abbey, it almost turns on its side to flow through the Strid.

The Strid is so called because it looks as though you could cross it with just one stride. The whole river flows through that narrow gap in the rocks. (I took the photo below in winter, but it doesn't look very different in summer).

Many people have, of course, been tempted to jump it, and many, I suppose, have succeeded. But because of the spray the rocks on the far side are always slippery. Nobody has ever fallen in the Strid and survived, and if you look at the photos above you can see why - all that river flowing through that tiny gap. Under the water are caverns and holes and whirlpools, down and down - one slip and that's it.

The place fascinates me because of absolute starkness of the options. You're either on the other side, or you're dead - and that moment of the jump when you know you're not quite there, which so many people will have felt - it's the clear meaning of terror for me.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Music Collection

Everyone I meet seems to have very definite musical taste and I don’t think I do. I was listening to some of a friend’s music collection today as the computer randomly chose the tracks and they all seemed very different and yet all interesting.

Dating from the days before cds, my record collection is, frankly, an embarrassment and it doesn’t help that all you have to do with a record collection is shove it in a spare room for a couple of years and it grows, like yeast. Strange things appear in it. The Pope’s Visit to Ireland. Nat King Cole’s Greatest Hits. The Original Cast Recording of the Sound of Music. The Choir of King's College Cambridge Sings Erotic Songs of the Eighteenth Century. (Oh, all right, I made that one up). I swear to you I never bought these things. Where do they come from?

My cd collection is also an embarrassment, consisting mainly of compilations that I have impulse-bought at the supermarket when fed up of buying shampoo and carrots. (No, I’m not telling you what they are). The rest, the ones I’m not ashamed of, have been given to me for birthdays and Christmases.

How did I get from being the Second Most Musical Child In The School (coughs modestly, see previous post) to this sorry state?

The first record I ever bought was Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons and I bought it in a petrol station and I still have it and I still like it. But after that - - well, not much. I never went into town to buy singles on a Saturday like many of my friends because, ironically, I played in an orchestra on Saturday morning. (See previous post for self-pitying whinging about this).

Anyway, what would I play records on? We had one Dansette record player in the house and the Communist’s taste is classical and very little else, and so is my mother’s - though, apart from classical music, she likes anything she can dance to, basically. We had one comedy record: we had Val Doonican: we had Rolf Harris’s Sun Arise and we one record by the superb Flanders and Swann. Elvis, rock music, the Beatles and everything since all passed the Communist by (they still have). He knows hundreds of songs and has an excellent baritone voice – but they are mostly Revolutionary Songs of the 1930s.

Avanti, o popolo, alla riscossa
Bandiera rossa, bandiera rossa
Avanti, o popolo, alla riscossa
Bandiera rossa la trionfera.

Bandiera rossa la trionfera
Bandiera rossa la trionfera
Bandiera rossa la trionfera
Evviva il comunismo e la liberta!

I ask you, how many red flags can you get into one song?

In our house, the radio played the Home Service and we had Sing Something Simple with our Sunday tea – the Black and White Minstrel Show on the radio, succeeding triumphantly in making every song sound the same (I enjoyed singing along, mind).

If I had come home with any of the music of the day I couldn’t have faced the barrage of,

“What’s that rubbish you’re listening to? I can’t hear a single word.”

So I learned to bluff. I read the teenage magazines and could talk knowledgeably about Marc Bolan, David Bowie and even Slade and David Cassidy and the Osmonds. Only rarely did I hear any of their music. Everyone else seemed to know all about it and I don’t know how they managed it – perhaps they had their own radios.

And perhaps I could have had my own radio too, if I had thought to ask for one – but it simply didn’t enter my head and I’m not sure why. It would have seemed like a big thing to buy in those days, but my family weren’t particularly short of money and if I’d asked for a radio for Christmas I think I would have got one. I think it was more that they would have been a bit disappointed if I had taken myself off to my room to listen to music by myself: music was a communal thing in our house, even though the choices were a bit limited.

So, I did my homework, and when I’d finished my homework and fed the rabbits, I read or watched television until it was time for bed. Music never got a look in.

Monday, September 11, 2006


A few years ago on this day, one of our actors came into the office wearing a very smart suit and red nail varnish.

He was going to a formal dinner that evening, hence the suit. The previous evening he had fallen asleep in front of the television and, as a joke, his American wife had painted his nails bright red.

He took it all in good part and had just borrowed my daughter’s nail varnish remover when my husband rang to tell us to turn the television on.

We watched in shock and horror as the second plane crashed into the tower.

The actor rang his wife to tell her.

At first, she thought it was the sickest of sick jokes – she thought he was making up this unimaginably hideous scenario in revenge for the nail varnish, and he and I could tell that for those few moments, before the sincerity in his voice hit home, she thought she had married the wrong man.

Nightkiller Demonslime

I'm back on the fungi again because there do seem to be lots of them about at the moment, even allowing for the fact that it's September. Here are some tiny and delightful ones on an old tree-trunk near Kettlewell in the Yorkshire Dales, placed there by fairies:

Aaaah! And here's a big ugly brute of a thing that sprung from nowhere in our garden in Leeds, placed there by Old Nick.

Errrrgh! First it looked like a white egg pushing through the ground.

Then it did this:

Then it did THIS!

Within just a day or two, it opened out and its cap dripped black sticky stuff of exceptional blackness and stickiness, as though auditioning for a horror movie.

Thanks to the wonder of the Internet I now know it's called a Shaggy Ink-Cap, a name which I feel is far too tame for it.

Nightkiller Demonslime is my first suggestion. It's outside this window. I'm worried that it will try to get in.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Oatso Expensive, Oatsuch a Con

Porridge eh? What a good thing it is on a cold winter's morning or even a slightly chilly September morning. I had some this morning and here is how I made it:

I took half a mug of porridge oats (the cheap ones are just as good as the expensive ones)

I put them in a bowl

I added half a mug of milk mixed with half a mug of water, then an extra gloop of water.
(This is the only really tricky bit in this recipe, but you can't go too far wrong with it, I promise)

I put it in the 800w microwave for two and a half minutes

I ate it. It was delicious. It would have been even more delicious had I bothered to cook it in a pan: but I couldn't be bothered and I wanted it fast and it was fine.

A couple of days ago, a friend of mine gave me some sachets of a product called Oatso Simple, made by Quaker (who I always thought sounded vaguely worthy and, well, Quakerish. Hah!)

It comes in little paper sachets and here are the instructions:

1. Empty the contents of one sachet into a large microwaveable cereal bowl and stir in 180mil of semi-skimmed milk (approx 1 cup)

2. Microwave on high as follows:
800w oven: two and a half minutes

Can you spot the difference between the two sets of instructions? Between my instructions for making Porridge and their instructions for making Oatso Simple?

Yes! You're right! There's no difference at all, except that their teeny tiny sachet only contains enough to provide breakfast for someone who's already had breakfast. You could not go out shooting haggis or whatever on the contents of their teeny tiny sachet: you would faint from hunger before the first haggis had been flushed from its lair.

What's in the teeny tiny sachet? I determined upon an exhaustive scientific enquiry. I tipped out the contents and looked at them.

And the answer is:

PORRIDGE OATS. That's all.

So, to sum up, Oatso Simple is porridge for people who can't measure half a container of porridge oats and then double that of liquid (plus that tricky extra gloop, if you like it runny, which I do).

Now then. Which do you think costs more?

Porridge Oats

Oatso Simple

I think you already know the answer.

Saturday, September 09, 2006


I want to come back to school uniforms because of Ailbhe’s comment on my piece about the school orchestra. She said that because she didn’t have access to trendy clothes like the other children, the uniforms were about the only thing the schools she went to got right.

At least these days the uniforms can often be bought cheaply from Tesco’s, rather than, when I was at school, very expensively from Rawcliffe’s. In my first year at secondary school was a girl from a poor family who couldn’t afford the proper uniform and her cheap and nasty version of it brought scorn on her head from staff and pupils alike, and that appalled me then, and still does.

But, even if the uniform is cheap - and why are clothes from supermarkets cheap? Where are they made? Who makes them, and what do those who make them get paid? I’m not even going to go there in this piece, I’m just pointing out that things are never straightforward – then I still think there’s something sad about dressing a whole schoolfull of children identically.

Uniform is supposed to stop school turning into a fashion parade – but it often doesn’t work. I remember when I was teaching in a secondary school in the early eighties, one lad complained that he had lost his trainers.

“Go and look in lost property, then,” I said – my usual response to such exciting matters.

“They won’t be there, Miss. Someone’s nicked them because they cost £50.”

“If they cost £50,” I replied – and remember this was in about 1983! – “then why on earth did you bring them to school?”

The shoes, the schoolbag, the haircut – all ways to circumnavigate the sameness of school uniform. Sometimes to express personality – great! Sometimes to show how rich and trendy you are - - - and that’s what infuriates me.

I suppose my quarrel is with some parents who seem very willing to respond to “pester power” and buy their children designer gear and then let them wear it to school. Yes, I know it can be hard to resist. And I know that I’m fortunate in that my daughter’s attitude has always been “designer gear – pah!” But if every parent in the country wasn’t interested in designer gear and didn’t let their children have it, far less wear it to school, and insisted that they wore whatever they liked to school as long as it was suitable for going to school in and wasn’t too expensive - THEN THERE WOULD BE NO NEED FOR SCHOOL UNIFORMS!

Then children of all ages could express their personality through their clothes, and this would be a Good Thing.

I know that uniforms take the “what shall I wear today?” decision out of choosing clothes. And I’m certainly taking Ailbhe’s argument seriously. But many other countries don’t have our obsession with school uniform, and they seem to cope.

To come back to my original point – I don’t like to see children dressed all the same (or adults, come to that – perhaps you guessed I’m not a big fan of formal suits). All I need is a fundamental change in society’s values, and then they won’t have to be.

Balancing Cow

We have some grand things Up North, tha knows.

Here's the very rare Yorkshire Dales Miniature Balancing Cow.

Friday, September 08, 2006

The Scareduck

Please don't expect too much from me tonight because I have walked six miles up hill and down dale (especially up hill) from Kettlewell to Starbotton in North Yorkshire.

Also I can hear every word that Robbie's singing in nearby Roundhay Park.

"You - - think I'm strong - -
You're wrong - - you're wrong - - "

Clearly, Robbie, you think I'm deaf.

So I am reduced to writing about this duck:

This duck, and some of its friends, lives just outside the Blue Bell Inn in Kettlewell. The door is wide open and the ducks were all clustered outside. So why, asked my friend David, do they not go into the pub?

Because of THIS, said the landlord. It stands in the doorway and is guaranteed to scare the life out of any would-be-trespassing duck. Readers of a nervous disposition should look away now:

AAAAAAAAARGH! QUAAAAAAAAAAAACK! Here is a duck fleeing, terrified from the hostelry:

Inside the landlord is looking cheerily at the scareduck and singing:

"And through it all, she offers me protection, A lot of love and affection, Whether I'm right or wrong - - "

And then the duck sings:

"And down the waterfall, Wherever it may take me, I know that it won't break me - - "

Oh, Robbie, please shut the duck up.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Ancient Musical History

Here we have Gledhow Primary School Orchestra, circa 1966 - and don't they all look so smart in their school uniforms? (I hate bloody school uniforms). Very rare for a primary school to have an orchestra, granted - and Mr. Allen - conducting - was a very charismatic music teacher - - unlike the others I encountered.

Let's zoom in a bit, shall we?

Now then. Just above Mr. Allen's left hand is a girl blowing the clarinet as hard as is humanly possible, and that is me. I didn't like my hairstyle then, and I don't like it now. The photo must have been taken just before a concert because I never wore school uniform usually: I hated it, (did I mention that I still hate it?) and it wasn't compulsory, thank goodness. I particularly hated wearing the tie - and when this photo was taken, I had another seven or eight years of tie-wearing to look forward to, O lucky girl!

The other thing I hated about school uniform was wearing a long-sleeved blouse under a cardigan - it made me feel as though I had both arms in plaster. Anyone else feel like that? Perhaps it was just me, but I had a childhood which involved a lot of Playing Out and I didn't like clothes that were constricting (and I still don't).

The keen-looking boy with the cello between his knees is the famous Gareth Price, mentioned in my post of a few days ago as being The Most Musical Child In The School.

I don't know what happened to him, but on the far right is a small girl who is holding a violin like a person who knew what to do with it, and indeed she did, for that is my friend Jo Bloom - still my friend now - and she became a violinist in the Halle Orchestra.

If only I had given up playing in orchestras then, and not continued when I started secondary school, I might have been left with fonder memories, because Mr. Allen was good fun. It's odd how I can look at faces I haven't seen for years and years and go "oh, look, Pat Tompkins, she's the blonde girl to my right - -"

But - just to labour the point - I think the photograph would have been more interesting if we were all wearing our own clothes. The idea of dressing a lot of small children identically seemed ridiculous to me then - and it still does. And yet, since that photograph was taken, schools - even primary schools - have become ever keener on school uniform. In this respect at least, the times they aren't a-changin'.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Take That - you have no choice

Only a couple of days now until Robbie honours us with his presence! I'm so excited! (no, not really, but somebody somewhere must be).

Leeds City Council makes a big fuss about the importance of education. They bang on and on about cutting down truancy and, when they really couldn't find anything to grumble about on one of Emily's reports once, they put in the section called TARGETS that her TARGET was "to improve attendance" (she'd missed a few days because she had flu, okay?)

Now they are closing her school for the day on Friday because Robbie is coming to Roundhay Park nearby and nobody will be able to get there. Further, they are hiring out the school car park to Robbie's fans.

I am seriously concerned. If my daughter doesn't get into university it'll be Robbie's fault.

Further, they have sent me a Helpful Leaflet which basically says if you were thinking of going anywhere at all on Friday or Saturday, forget it, you're stuffed. I think that's what it says, anyway, because it's written in a kind of Municipal English. This is exactly what it says, I promise you:

If parked along the restrictions your vehicle or in any location obstructing access in the area your vehicle may be towed. If your vehicle is towed please contact the following number to arrange retrieval: (insert number)

Somebody forgot to insert the number so anyone whose car is towed will presumably have lost it forever. It continues:

Residents are strongly advised that wherever possible, avoid vehicular trips as the network will be highly congested.

which is Municipal English for:

Don't go out in your car or you won't be able to get where you're going and then you won't be able to get back again.

Oh, Robbie, Robbie! I was very polite in my dream about you but you're beginning to annoy me now.

You're the One That I Want

My spies within the industry (she said grandly) tell me the following:

After each concert, Heavy Metal icons Iron Maiden like to get home at night, because they don't want to miss their Horlicks and slippers and who can blame them? They have a Lear Jet so they can get back quickly from their international tour dates and relax with a soothing Enya track.

Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden is an experienced pilot so he flies the Lear Jet. But, in order to keep his licence up to date, he has to get commercial flying experience too so flies passenger airlines when he’s not on tour with Iron Maiden.

And who is his co-pilot? John Travolta, of course.

I picture them flying over the Atlantic singing all those hits from Grease, with Bruce Dickinson as Olivia Newton-John:

John: Summer lovin' had me a blast
Bruce: Summer lovin', happened so fast
John: I met a girl crazy for me
Bruce: I met a boy, cute as can be - -

and so on. Glorious.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Competitive Childbirth

When Emily was very small I was at a Mothers and Babies group with her and the conversation turned to childbirth.

How I Suffered But Was Determined on Natural Childbirth So Wouldn’t Have Any Pain Relief, was the general swing of some of it.

How I Gave Birth At Home and Wouldn’t Have Gone to Hospital No Matter What, Because I Wanted To Be Near My Other Children, was some of the rest of it.

Now don’t get me wrong – hospitals can be such bloody terrible places to give birth – I know, believe me - and all that putting your legs in stirrups and talking to you as though you were three and not believing a word you said really, really stinks.

So I was all ready to agree with all this, up to a point, and the point was what happened to me with Emily. And finally somebody asked me.

“Well,” I explained, “I have a condition called incompetent cervix, which means that as soon as the baby gets to a certain size the waters break and the baby is born far too early, and my first baby died because of this. So with Emily they sewed my cervix shut with a thing called a Shirodkar suture, and that meant that she wasn’t born until about thirty-six weeks – just a month early. But she was breech, and I don’t feel proper labour pains because of my slightly deformed womb, and this was why nobody believed me when I said I was in labour with my first baby. So I had to have an emergency Caesarean for both those reasons and because they had to get her out quickly they gave me a general anaesthetic.”

A chilly disapproval swept the room.

“So what would have happened if you hadn’t had the Caesarean?”

“I expect we would both have died.”

“Oh.” The general feeling seemed to me to be that this might have been preferable, that we had somehow Let the Side Down.

“And did you breast-feed?”

“No, I wanted to but I never produced any milk: they said that sometimes happens with premature babies.”

“Oh. Couldn’t you have persevered a little longer?”

“Well, I could have, but meanwhile my baby would have starved to death.”

Silence. I left soon after, and never went back.

The thing about natural childbirth, it seems to me, is that that’s great if it’s safe for both mother and baby. And there has, of course, been a tendency towards too much medical intervention and far too little of allowing the mother to use her instincts.

But mothers should back each other up. Surely the first thing should be that the mother and child should be alive? Hospital staff should treat the expectant mother with kindness and total respect, and medical intervention should be kept to a minimum – but with close monitoring of the mother to see if any is needed.

The trouble is that, in nature, “natural” so often equals “dead”.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Messing about in Boats

Seeing The Wind in the Willows next to Coniston Water in the Lake District recently was really very appropriate, because I’ve always enjoyed messing about in boats.

On Coniston there are plenty of boats to mess about in.

There are lots of little sailing boats:

There is the beautifully-restored Victorian steam yacht Gondola:

Gondola moves about the lake almost silently, producing clouds of steam: she is a very peaceful way to travel. Although I prefer to sit outside and see the fells, the interior, with its leather seats, is lovely too.

But the rowing boat, below, was the boat that caught my eye, because this is what I consider to be a Proper Rowing Boat, of the kind you can mess about in for ages. When I was a child we did just that, until the boatman called “Come in Number 12, your time is up!”

And here I am, in a photo taken a little while ago now, messing about in a boat very like the one on Coniston. I’m not sure where the photo was taken, but I’m sitting next to the Communist, though few would recognise him without the beard he’s had since about 1970.

I was four, and blind as a bat, though nobody knew at the time, including me, because I didn’t have my eyes tested until I was five. This is why I am peering at the camera with well-meaning incomprehension.

I loved it! I still love it. Hurrah for boats. I'd like to point out, though, that I gave up the ribbon in my hair as soon as I decently could.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

On Not Being First Violin

When I was ten the whole school did a test of musical ability. It was very high-tech and we found it all most exciting. Each of us in turn was connected to a tape recorder – one of those reel to reel ones the size of a Star Wars mothership – and we had to listen through headphones, which was thrilling in itself. They played lots of different notes and sequences of notes and then asked us questions about them. Which note is higher, that kind of thing. Lots of the notes were very similar in pitch and took a bit of listening to, hence the headphones.

Then we waited until the results came back. As expected, the most musical child in the school was Gareth Price, an earnest young man of Welsh extraction who played about five instruments and was never seen without a clarinet in his hand.

The second most musical child in the school was – modest cough – me. A bit of a fuss erupted. Gareth Price, the No. 1 plus the No. 3, 4 and 5 were all children whose first lisping sentence was “Mummy, please may I learn the violin?” From this test of musical ability they were all put forward to get financial help with music lessons and they are all now, no doubt, the First Violins of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

And then there was me. Serious Musical Gentlemen came to talk to me. Did I play any instruments? Well, yes, actually. I played the following:

the descant recorder (very well indeed)

the clarinet (extremely badly)

the piano (like an elephant dancing the polka)

The area where this Test of Musicality fell down was that it may have picked up the ability with pitch that was inside my head, but it never noticed that I have Russian Peasant Hands, which I inherited from a long line of Russian Peasants. Very good if you want the top of a jar opening, very bad if you want anything delicate doing, such as playing an instrument.

The clarinet teachers that I had were not inspirational. I learned the clarinet for several years without knowing what it should sound like: without knowing that all the nasty squeaks were not an intrinsic part of the instrument and that it could in fact play Stranger on the Shore in the hands of Acker Bilk.

It didn’t help that all the time I played the clarinet I assumed that you always had to blow as hard as you could to get any sound out of it at all, as though you were blowing up a lilo. It was only many years later that I found out that the reeds came in different thicknesses and that the ones I had been using were the thickest. Too late!

But because I was supposed to be Musical, I joined Leeds Schools Junior Orchestra. I don’t know why – I don’t remember anyone ever asking me if I wanted to do any such thing.

We played lots of classical music, some of it very tricky, such as Vltava by Smetana. We gave terrible concerts in Leeds Town Hall, watched by our admiring parents. I knew I couldn’t play well enough and I hated every tedious minute of it and it went on every bloody Saturday morning for years and years. The only enjoyable moment I remember was when, one day, a girl had left her cello lying on its back just inside the door. Somebody opened the door and trampled right through the cello with a loud, deeply satisfying splintering noise.

The girl who sat next to me had an artificial leg in a lovely shade of salmon pink. It didn’t bend in the middle properly and people were always tripping over it as they edged through the forest of music stands. I stared at it, fascinated by its pinkness, as I puffed and blew and squeaked my way through Mozart and Handel, bored to death.

I never told anyone how I felt or how much I resented the loss of my Saturday mornings. I felt it my duty to be there, because I was supposed to be Musical.

Finally I spotted an escape hatch and leaped through it. “I’m really sorry everyone, but I need the time on Saturday mornings to do my homework, because I have O-levels coming up.” Goodbyeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! I was out of there.

I still have the clarinet. I’ve never played it since.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

We've been Robbied

Bad puns - they're not big and they're not clever and yet they're so hard to resist.

When I met Robbie Williams I said to him look, Robbie, your music's not really to my taste but I must say you're really rather good at what you do - that Angel is really difficult to sing and you make it sound very easy.

His reply remains unknown because then I woke up. I think dreaming about Robbie Williams is a bit naff and frankly I think it's quite brave of me to confess it.

Anyway, perhaps Robbie's been dreaming of me too, because in a vain effort to get closer to me he has arranged two concerts in Roundhay Park which is ten minutes from where I live. It's causing chaos.

They have closed the car park and filled it with trucks and men in yellow jackets, one of whom asked me why I was taking photographs.

"Ah well," I said respectably, "my daughter's a big Robbie Williams fan so I know she'd want some pictures of them setting everything up." - Oh, I see, he said, and went away without confiscating my camera or throwing me into a police cell.


Because they got rid of the rather wild and fun children's playground that was up on the hill and replaced it with a small dull version next to the car park, they have had to close it because of Robbie. That's my only complaint really. Although I like the park for its peace and quiet, I think it's a Good Thing that they put these concerts on there a couple of times a year because lots of people enjoy them. At the moment Leeds is on a "restore the park to its Victorian splendour" kick which translated as "get rid of the little fairground" which I think is a shame - it's a huge park, the largest municipally-owned park in Europe, I'm told, and there's enough room for both Victorian splendour and a bit of fun.

I live near enough to hear the concerts from our garden which is always enough to convince me that I made the right decision in keeping away. So when Robbie shouts out "Where are you, Daffers, I've been dreaming about you," I will be able to hear him, but he won't be able to hear my reply.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Duncan, Ian and Judi

So there I was this lunchtime, sitting in the cafe at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, having suddenly gone there because David suddenly suggested it, and there, a mere two tables away, was Duncan Preston. Yes! The very same Duncan Preston who's about to play Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird! The very same Duncan Preston who starred in Acorn Antiques and Dinnerladies! The very same Duncan Preston who "learned his craft with the Royal Shakespeare Company, working alongside Ian McKellan glaring spelling mistake and Judy Dench glaring spelling mistake", see previous posts, (oh dear, you groan, will she never let it drop?)

Well I could have gone up to Duncan and said hey, Dunc, Acorn Antiques very funny, being made into musical, that Victoria Wood jolly good eh, and by the way can you tell me all about learning your craft and working alongside Ian and - - oh, haven't you seen the letter, shall I show you?

And there at the bar was the Artistic Director Ian Brown and I could have gone up to him and said hey, Ian, nice theatre n'est-ce pas? Mockingbird splendid novel, Duncan Preston excellent actor best known for getting laughs but - as I expect you know, Ian - actors who can do comedy can always do everything else but the reverse ain't necessarily so - anyway, Duncan learnt his craft with the Royal Shakespeare company, didn't you know? Oh yes, it says so on this letter, shall I show you?

But I didn't. I ate my cheese and ham panini and it was delicious.

(I've posted my letter to the Marketing Manager though)