Thursday, November 30, 2006

At the Meeting

Today I was at a formal meeting. I don’t usually like formal meetings, though this one had very pleasant people and interesting subject matter.

But still, it involved sitting at the same chair for four and a half hours with a short coffee break in the middle – the coffee was instant, in little packets - long thin ones, the kind that say “tear here” and won’t tear - and there were little packets of hot chocolate and sugar. The hot water was in one of those jugs where you don’t know where to press and when eventually you do press the right place a jet of water spurts out at a pressure more suitable for cleaning cars, and knocks your plastic cup over.

After death threats were issued to the organisers, some biscuits appeared too.

So we all sat round the table, and ruffled our papers, and scribbled notes, and talked, and generally sat in a stiff formal manner with body language that suggested we were Doing Our Best at a Formal Meeting.

All apart from one person, and I’m going to call her Emma, though she isn’t called Emma.

Emma was amazing: her whole morning was a kind of rebellion against formal meetings and yet she played a full – nay, crucial - role in this one. Whilst being completely on top of everything that was discussed, she was simultaneously leading a whole different life.

The first thing she did when she arrived, as the meeting was starting, was to stir up one of those yogurts that have cherries on one side and plain yogurt on the other. She made it into a pretty pattern and ate it with relish.

Then she set about the coffee. Whilst simultaneously both talking and listening she got up and made herself a cup of coffee, effortlessly opening the little coffee tube and managing not to pour water everywhere.

She sorted through her pencil case, categorising everything whilst calmly making very valid contributions to the meeting all the while.

Then she moved to a different chair and sat with her knees beneath her chin for a while before scribbling a few notes. She examined both her socks, very carefully, and for no apparent reason. Then, time for hot chocolate! She got a new cup and poured the powder in, very carefully, through a tiny hole in the packet: and then decided there was too much so poured half of it back again.

As the meeting neared its end Emma got up and did a few stretching exercises. I was pretty sure that, given another ten minutes, she would have built all the plastic cups into a tower.

Someone else doing all this might have been tremendously irritating, but she did it all with such good humour, and with such concentration on the subject-matter of the meeting, that I found it simply interesting.

“I don’t like doing nothing,” she said at one point. I think the clue to it, though, was that she said that she teaches dance and certainly she moved with a dancer’s grace. I think she was so comfortable in her body that she could move about a lot without feeling clumsy, or that she was interrupting the meeting.

The rest of us knew that we didn’t have this ability. Once false move and the whole table would have been knocked over. We just scribbled our notes and let Emma get on with it.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Pull of the Moon

One of the interesting things about the seaside is that it changes so much as the tide goes in and out.

We were looking at a net that had been lost by a fishing boat: it was lying on the sand:

Then, just a short while later, there it was, way out to sea:

But hey, just a minute, I thought. Aren't we made up of a large percentage of water? How come we don't feel the moon's pull and be dragged across the room one way in the morning and then back again in the afternoon?

It was patiently explained to me that although a lot of water does go in and out, as a proportion of the amount of water in the sea it's very tiny. So only a tiny bit of us would get pulled across the room. The bit that suddenly goes hey, I think I'll go and put the kettle on now.

Really, sometimes science can be very dull. I'd like to think the moon has more of an effect on us than we know.

Monday, November 27, 2006


Here we have two photos of much the same view - the mountain called Black Coombe, seen from Roan Head (pronounced Ron Ed) in Cumbria, across the Duddon estuary.

I took one of the photos on July 7th and the other one yesterday, November 26th.

Which is which?

I expect you guessed: the sunny one is the November one. You can tell from the long shadows and the quality of the light, but apart from that there isn't really much obvious difference, though if you enlarge the photo enough you can see lots of tiny wild flowers in July.

We were lucky with the weather yesterday and had a very long walk on a very sunny beach. It was, of course, the best place in the world.

Sunday, November 26, 2006


I’m just back from a lovely couple of days with my relatives in Barrow-in-Furness.

Robert told me an interesting story.

He had fairly recently started kayaking and wanted a wetsuit, but couldn’t afford one.

One day he was walking near Dunnerholme, which is near Askam in Furness, which is not near anywhere really – it’s over at least two cattle grids, which counts as Remote in my book - - - when he spotted an old lime kiln. As he peered at it, a barn owl flew out and Robert went in to have a look round. He was wondering whether the roof was supported by wood or stone (it was stone, in case you were wondering, lime kiln fans) when he noticed he was treading on something.

It was a wetsuit.

Presuming someone had – for some reason best known to themselves – dumped it there because it was ripped, he took it outside and examined it more closely.

It was full of sand, and had clearly been there for some time, but had no holes in it.

He tried it on. It fitted perfectly.

He took it home. He’s been wearing it ever since (though not all the time, obviously).

So, how did a wetsuit get into a lime kiln some way from the sea?

Robert suggested that the owl put it there. Further, he suggested to me that he’s thinking of going back to see if the owl’s put anything else there – a sea kayak, perhaps, or some paddles, or a large hoard of pieces of eight.

Nonsense, of course – how on earth could an owl carry a wetsuit?

The only possible explanation is that a man went into the lime kiln wearing a wetsuit and then turned into a barn owl and flew out again.

Strange things happen in the far north-west of England, oh yes they do.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Colour Blind

Since I wrote the piece a couple of days ago about knowing my left from my right, I’ve been surprised by the number of people who have said they’ve never been quite sure, or they have to think about it.

I think the reason I’ve always been so certain about it is because I am very, very right-handed: my right hand generally knows what it’s doing and my left one just doesn’t. When I play the piano I am only conscious of reading the music for the left hand. I read it with difficulty and my left hand plays it with difficulty too. My right hand, on the other hand, appears to read its own music and get right on with playing it without any apparent input from me.

When playing the descant recorder, where all the music is in the treble clef and hence would normally be played by the right hand on the piano, my left hand seems able to join in. Give me a descant recorder and you hum it, I’ll play it: it’s as though both hands think they’re the right hand. Odd.

Rhythm I’m sure about too. Tap out a rhythm and I’ll tap it right back to you. I know someone who doesn’t understand about rhythm. Watching him try to march in time to music, as I did once, was astonishing to me. Left - - - right. Leftright. Left. Right. Left - - - - - Right. To hear him play a well-known piece on the clarinet was also amazing – the notes were in the right order, but that was it. To him, Beethoven’s Fifth, instead of going Duh-duh-duh-DUH, might as well go Duh DUH duh-duh – he simply can’t hear the difference.

To me, who can hear it, it is hard to imagine not being able to. Rhythm is a very basic skill – almost all of us have it. Often I find that people who have other abilities – perfect pitch, the ability to draw, the ability to dance – take their – to me – astonishing skill very much for granted and find it hard to imagine that other people can’t do it. (PE teachers generally find it impossible to imagine that anyone might not want to play their tedious team sports, let alone might not be able to, but that’s a bit of a digression).

When I applied to do teacher training, years ago, part of it was a colour-blindness test. Lots of the usual blobs of colour. We were all in a queue to do this test and as each one of us approached, they turned the page to give a different picture.

The man in front of me looked at the very clear picture of a rather blobby horse. He looked very puzzled.

“There’s nothing there,” he said. “It’s just blobs.”

In slight panic, he turned to me.

“Look,” he said. “Nothing. Nothing at all. You can’t see anything, can you?”

I could see that he was colour-blind, and that he didn’t know, and that he was about to find out, and I felt very sorry for him, because his whole world picture was about to change.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Exciting New Perfume

In my dream last night I was the Sales Manager for a new brand of perfume. I didn’t want to be, you understand, because I knew the product was a disaster, but I was surrounded by flash corporate types who all thought it was a really good idea.

The perfume was called Nazi Underarm.

On the bottle was a drawing of a Nazi S.S. officer in full uniform with his hand raised in a Hitler salute. In an effort to make the product more appealing, they had given the officer a broad grin, which I felt was entirely inappropriate.

At the board meeting they all explained to me that this was really cool and would become the next Chanel No. 5.

I had a very, very strong conviction that they were all wrong, but the bastards just wouldn’t listen.

I’d had enough. I took the easy option and woke up.

In hopes of sympathy, I explained to Emily and Gareth about the difficult time I had been having in this dream.

They laughed. A lot.

Thursday, November 23, 2006


Looking at the flying chair in the Maximalism exhibition and thinking of the certainty that it will come down again, I started wondering - - what am I certain about?

The first thing that sprang to mind – and I’m not sure why – is my left and my right. Which might not seem too astounding a certainty, but I was brought up by a mother who hasn’t a clue which is which.

So she’s great at giving directions in the car.

“Turn right. No, RIGHT - - MY WAY! Not your way! MY WAY! - - Oh, LEFT then.”

How can you not know your left from your right? I have known it for as long as I’ve known anything.

In my mother’s case, I suspect the confusion springs from the fact that she was very probably left-handed, but was made to use her right hand at school, and so has ended up almost ambidextrous but completely confused over left and right.

My mother had a stroke about fourteen years ago – she made an astonishing, almost-complete recovery, probably because she was so fit before it. Further, and rather interestingly, the stroke puzzled the doctors because she had lost certain functions characteristic of a stroke on the other side, and retained various functions that she should have lost. So left and right are clearly hard-wired in her head in a tangle of wires.

Another thing I’m certain about is colours – always have been. That’s red. That’s orange. That’s blue.

But there’s a slight query about this. I’ve met people who seemed equally certain about their colours – but what they thought was turquoise, I thought was green, and what I thought was red, they thought was orange.

And it’s always been something I’ve pondered from time to time. Is is a question of naming, or one of seeing?

If it’s just a question of naming, then it’s simply that I call colours from that shade to that shade red, but you name them slightly differently, and you call my end shade of red, orange.

But what if it’s seeing? What if we all see colours slightly differently? Perhaps I can’t be certain about them at all. Everyone has a different view of the world - - perhaps they see it in different colours, too.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Phoning it In

The term “phoning it in” is one that actors use to describe a lazy performance by an actor, the idea being that he’s not really there, on stage, “in the moment” – his body may be there but his mind isn’t, it’s at home, on the sofa with a couple of beers watching I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. So, with regard to his performance, he’s phoning it in from home. It’s a very expressive phrase and one I saw perfectly brought to life in one actor’s performance recently – he was on stage doing the lines and the moves but his heart really wasn’t in it and we could all tell (and he wasn’t from the agency I work for, I must point out!)

But before the actor gets the job, a casting director for television or a theatre director usually rings the office with an audition. We have a tried-and-trusted phone book where we write down every call that comes in. Incoming in red, outgoing in black (or blue when someone’s nicked every black pen in the place).

What could be simpler? And on a quiet day, when not much is going on, it’s easy.
(nb all names have been changed to protect the guilty)

Eric Boggins from Northern Television rang with interview for Claire Green for role of Brenda Heart in A Hearty Welcome, new Northern soap, Tuesday 28th November, 3.30pm. Tel 0113 2868686. Only ring back if she can’t make it and they’ll email script for her to look at.

Then, in black:

Claire Green: yes, that’s fine, she’ll be there.

But on days like today, Eric rings, and you try to ring Claire, and her phone’s switched off because she’s working and you leave a message, and when she does get back she says the day is fine but can you make it earlier because she needs to catch a train at three o’clock to Manchesterford.

So you ring Eric back and he’s not there now. So you leave him a message.

And then in the next hour you get calls from a roleplay company seeking any one of three people (none of whom is available because they’re all rehearsing pantomime, oh yes they are), and a theatre company letting us know that an actor didn’t get the job, (it’s good that they rang – theatre and television don’t usually let you know unless you did get the job), and three new applicants to the agency, and a casting director offering some general auditions, and an actor asking where he’s working in Oxford tomorrow, and a query about digs in Northampton, and oops! I find I have been unable to keep up with the phone book and have gone down the sad and sorry route of WRITING THINGS ON BITS OF PAPER.

How many years have I been here? Why do I still do this? At the end of the day I then find a billowing pile of paper with scribbled notes on and can’t leave the office until I’ve made them into some sort of sense in the phone book. Because if I leave it until tomorrow, they will no longer make any sort of sense and I will be reduced to ringing actors and telling them they’ve got an audition. For something. Not quite sure what. Or whom they’ll be meeting. Or what time. Or what day. Or whether they need to do an audition piece when they get there.

No, writing things on bits of paper is not good, take it from me. But I’ve yet to find a better system.

Sunday, November 19, 2006


You've got three days to get yourself there - - and I've been a bit busy getting myself, family and friends there this weekend, which is why I haven't written this blog as frequently as usual.

John Coombes and Wayne Markwort, as Markwort and Coombes, have exhibited their work in a multi-media art exhibition, Maximalism, in the huge basement of Bates Mill in Huddersfield. When I say huge I mean HUGE - John's Landrover is parked in one corner and looks like a Dinky toy.

They've done it all without a grant and it cost a lot to do because there is film and television as well as oil painting, installation, sculpture and drawing.

You can read more about it on the Maximalism blog which John has been writing.

There have been lots of visitors over the weekend and I'm sure there will be more during the week - it finishes on Wednesday - and I overheard very many positive comments at the opening night last night.

I love it when people get up and do stuff - art, theatre, film, anything requiring talent and commitment - and I particularly like it when they JUST DO IT without complaining that they can't possibly do it because the world is against them and it's not fair (even though, with regard to the arts, it usually isn't fair - some tosser with no talent has usually got all the money).

So, if you live within travelling distance of Huddersfield - and hey! they've invented aeroplanes so you all do! - then go and see it. There are lots of edgy, original things to see and not a single brightly-coloured oil painting of a stilted-looking sailing ship upon a turquoise sea.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Definite Article

When people do impressions of a Yorkshire accent they tend to do this kind of thing:

After Ah’ve fed t’ferrets ‘appen Ah’ll tek t’whippet for a walk and then let t’pigeons aht.

Which - for the benefit of Southerners and others - means:

Subsequent to the feeding of the ferrets my dog and I will have a stroll around the park before releasing the pigeons from their dwelling-place

And indeed that t’ sound can be heard in quite a bit of speech round here – the definite article is abbreviated to t’ but is still there.

Today I was working in East Yorkshire and I met a lady for whom the definite article had disappeared completely, leaving no trace of its existence, not a t’ sound, not a pause, nothing. She had only a slight Northern accent and was a young, educated woman in a senior nursing position and hence there was a – to me – slightly surprising contrast between the content of what she was saying and the way in which she was saying it.

“So we must make sure patient is kept comfortable and relative has a chair to sit on by side of bed. Then they can have a good talk in side room with no concerns that they will be interrupted by doctor or cleaner.”

She was a delightful, caring woman and I found myself fascinated both by what she was saying and also by waiting for the next missing “the”. I found myself wondering – how would she write? Would she put the definite articles in? Yes, of course she would, because we all make differences between how we speak and how we write.

I would more usually expect to find that kind of speech in older people who learned it years ago before dialects and accents were evened out by mass communication and the media. To hear it in someone young and confident was, to me, very pleasing. Although the world has got so much smaller, I think it’s great that some local idiosyncrasies still remain.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


I was alone in the house when the soldiers came. I was in the kitchen of this house. It was now.

I knew it was the soldiers as soon as I heard them outside the back door and as I pounded past the doorway I could see their camouflage colours through the glass.
I ran upstairs and locked myself in the bathroom, thinking that would delay them for a few seconds at least.

My mobile phone happened to be on the bathroom floor. It was switched on. I wondered whether I should bother switching it off.

These bloody soldiers have been coming to get me in my dreams for as long as I can remember. They used to be Nazis but I notice from last night’s dream that they’ve modernised a bit.

They’ve never actually got me yet, though – the dream stops just as they’re about to. I’ve often wondered what will happen if they do.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Ho flaming Ho

It's been a busy couple of days and I barely noticed it as I dashed into Tesco's this lunchtime, but there it was, festively lurking in the doorway - the first Christmas tree of 2006. Well, the first one I've seen anyway. Look, I've only just got used to it not being August, so a Christmas tree was a bit of a shock.

Better order my Christmas sofa then, have you ordered yours? No? Come on, get a move on, it might not be here in time for Christmas!

What is all this about sofas? What's this new Christmas-sofa tradition that dfs and other sofa emporiums are trying to thrust upon us?

Week after week in the adverts on telly we have some old celebrity has-been lounging on sofas telling us to buy NOW and it will be delivered in time for Christmas! How did we ever do Christmas without a new sofa? And what is this new tongue Sofaspeak in which the prices are announced?


Five Nine Nine, of course, sounds much snappier and sexier than five hundred and ninety-nine pounds, and much cheaper than six hundred. Or so they would have us believe.

And as for the nothing to pay for a year nonsense - well, steer well clear, is my advice. Otherwise, when you've had your sofa for a year and the cat's ripped it and the baby's weed on it and you've spilled beer on it and you've crashed into it a few times with the hoover - - well, THEN you have to start paying for the bastard. And it's next Christmas already and time for a new one.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Something Fishy

I used to love fairs when I was a child. Fairs, playgrounds, the pet shop, zoos, four of my favourite places: and all ones that aroused vague disapproval in my parents.

I think they thought that fairs were full of crooks who were trying to rip you off. Which they may well have been, but I loved the atmosphere and the buzz of them - and, as a matter of fact, I still do. The rides they thought were full of danger - and I expect they were, but I loved them too, apart from the helter-skelter which I thought was terrifying.

My mother didn't like zoos, though I'm still not quite sure why - perhaps because the animals were frequently kept in less-than-ideal conditions and perhaps the same applied to pet shops. Perhaps she didn't feel up to the cries of "Mum, can I have a hamster/mouse/rat/parakeet/turtle/snake?" that would ensue after any visit to the pet shop.

Playgrounds, of course, were lethal in those days, with huge slides from which you could plummet to death by concrete at any moment. But I loved them.

So one of my lasting childhood memories is of pestering my parents to take me to any of the above, and of them saying sorry, dear, not today, perhaps another time. Which I always thought was odd: because they were clearly Adoring Parents. Children know these things - they know how loved they are, and I was loved. So, I reasoned - though never said so - if you love me so much, why can't we go to the playground then? And, of course, we did go to all these places occasionally - just never often enough for me!

Of course, their memories are probably of always having to go to playgrounds/zoos/the pet shop/fairs when they would much rather have been somewhere else.

The best thing about the fair was the chance to win a goldfish. The drama of the fair and my love of all animals combined! Fantastic!

Quite often I would return home with some poor half-dead goldfish which had been living in a polythene bag for far longer than was good for it. I prided myself on my ability to revive these poor creatures and they would lead a long and - I hope - happy life in a tank.

But I thought all that had gone. It's been years since I saw goldfish in polythene bags, and a good thing too. More enlightened times. You can't give animals away as prizes - it's cruel, and as a matter of fact it's cruel to keep a goldfish in a polythene bag for any time at all.

And then on Thursday I was in Leeds city centre and they were setting up a fair and look! Goldfish in polythene bags.

I had to pretend I was taking lots of photos in other directions first, in case the man in charge of the stall came and beat me up.

I don't like cruelty of any kind ever. I know that, in comparison with the terrible cruelty that goes on in the world, goldfish in polythene bags doesn't rank high on the scale. But I still think it's wrong. We shouldn't be accepting or casual about any kind of cruelty, on no matter how small a scale. Small, casual cruelties can make bigger ones seem much more acceptable.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

With Succulent Chicken and Liver

Ocean Delicacies with Plaice and Shrimps in Gravy. Gourmet Gold with Select Duck and Turkey, or with Delightful Salmon and Sole. Rich in Beef. Rich in Chicken.

Mmm, sounds delicious. Let’s hear more about those Ocean Delicacies, shall we?

What could be more perfect than gently prepared dishes with seafood? Introducing Ocean Delicacies with selected seafood. Tender flakes with fish, carefully steam cooked to retain the natural taste of the sea, combined with delicious shrimps: an irresistible gourmet experience to please the expert palate of your - -

Cat. It’s cat food.

And if we look a little bit more carefully at the above-mentioned Ocean Delicacies, here’s the list of ingredients:

Meat and animal derivatives, vegetable and protein extracts, fish and fish derivatives (of which plaice 4%) molluscs and crustaceans (shrimp 4%), minerals. Contains EC permitted colorant.

So in “selected seafood” the new and creative use of the word “selected” presumably means “anything caught in the bottom of the net”.

And there’s not actually a lot of plaice and shrimps in it, is there?

Though actually, why should there be? The cat food manufacturers play on the fact that, because we think plaice and shrimps are a bit classy, our cats will prefer them too: but that might not be the case. They may well prefer the Poofaced Slimefish from the bottom of the sea.

And then there’s the interesting word MEAT.

What kind of meat? Fillet steak? No, we know it isn’t. We know it’s Dead Horse with a touch of Kangaroo.

But we are British: we love our cats: they are little four-legged people to us: we don’t want to think about them eating Cheval Kangourou, we want to think about them eating Mini Fillets in Gravy.

And now, because of the current vogue for healthy food, they are trying to persuade us to buy different kinds of cat food for cats of different ages. Perfect Fit – Active – for Spirited Adventurers, it says here. And I bought it! What’s in it? With added Kangaroo, to make your cat jump higher!? I don’t think so.

I can tell you one thing. No Government of Great Britain will ever make pet food manufacturers list the full ingredients. There’d be rioting in the streets.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


When I started work at the actors' agency, in 1993, we didn't have a computer. We had one electric typewriter. We had two telephone lines - one for the actors to ring in, and one for casting directors - and a fax, which we thought was very modern and exciting. The actors all had landlines but nobody had a mobile. One or two of them had answerphones on their landlines, but most did not.

Casting breakdowns came in once a week, on a Friday, by post, and we would spend most of Friday typing them up into a newsletter, which we then photocopied and sent out to all our actors.

After a few years some of the actors got pagers - I thought these were great because I could page an actor and he or she would ring me fairly soon afterwards. After a few more years they began to get mobiles, and now an actor without a mobile is unthinkable (mind you, some of them don't seem to think to switch them on).

And, gradually, email became of increasing importance and now an actor without email is generally one who likes to think of themselves as an actor but doesn't really want to do the job.

Now we have several computers in a network (thanks to my husband) and two printers. The number of casting breakdowns coming into the agency has multiplied by at least a factor of twenty: and as a consequence of this, the actors do get a lot more work.

And it's much quicker to submit actors for jobs by email than it is by post, of course.

So the transformation in just thirteen years has been amazing. The only downside is that many more casting breakdowns coming in means a lot more work for us in the office. I think our workload has at least trebled. Luckily we're fortunate in having some excellent people to help plough through the ever-lengthening inbox.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


When I was a small child some things were, on the face of it, better. There was much less traffic, so I could go out in the side street and practise cycling in figures of eight, or roller skating, whilst only rarely having to get out of the way of a car. I could wander off with my friends (known as Playing Out) and just wander back again when we got hungry. When I went to the shops on my bike I just propped it outside and it would still be there when I came out.

Oh yes, on and on she goes - - how things were better in the Olden Days of the early 1960s, which really weren’t so very long ago.

But lots of things weren’t better in those days, and one of them was the generalised stuffiness and formality of things. My mother and grandmother wore gloves to go to town, for goodness’ sake, even if it was July.

Men wore suits for work and women wore formal blouses and skirts. My mother was, I swear, the first female teacher in Leeds to wear a revolutionary item of dress called a “trouser suit” to work. She had two: one was orange and the other was pink. I think the matter was probably raised in Parliament, but she got away with it, just.

And oh, the stuffiness of restaurants! Eating out was such a rare thing, in our household anyway, and so formal with all those knives and forks and wondering which to use and worrying about spilling stuff on the crisp white tablecloths and being told to sit up straight and to keep your elbows off the table.

These days, of course, restaurants are everywhere. Emily, Gareth and I were in an inexpensive one tonight in Huddersfield where the staff were polite, friendly and helpful and the service was quick (“Your meal will be about twelve minutes but I will bring you the garlic bread in three.”) It was lively and informal and the food was simple and good.

One of the things I remember most from trips out when I was small was the constant worry about doing the wrong thing and making some social gaffe. One of the biggest changes over the past decades is that Britain is getting itself unstuffed and I think that’s great.

Monday, November 06, 2006

In strange Northern climes

A few odd things that I found in Huddersfield.

An out-of-season window box - (the beer bottle was not my doing)

And then this lighthouse, in somebody's garden:

And, nearby, a perfect upside-down building:

I don't usually like any sort of garden ornaments - particularly those which could be described as "twee" which is most of them - but I did like the window box, it was cheerful and pleased with itself and unpretentious. I'm a bit obsessed with lighthouses (yes, I know, I know, you can stop laughing right now) I like their curious mixture of wildness and comfort (I said stop it).

And a perfect upside-down building is always good to see, especially when the sky is blue.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Shoddy and Mungo

A firm of Victorian solicitors? A couple of baddies in a pantomime? Two loveable characters in a children’s television series?

On my way back from Huddersfield on the train on Friday I passed a huge old mill with Shoddy and Mungo Mfrs in large letters on the outside. I love things like that.

I knew what shoddy was – it is “a fibrous material made by shredding unfelted rags or waste.” It was an early form of recycling, invented by Benjamin Law in 1813. Most poor people in those days bought their clothes third-hand and wore them until they literally fell to pieces. The rags could then be made into shoddy and remade into poor-quality material.

Mungo I had not heard of – but it’s similar to shoddy, though made with felted rags.

In 1860 the town of Batley was producing over 7000 tonnes of shoddy. That’s a lot of old clothes.

Nowadays, as this interesting article tells us, many old clothes end up in the Third World.

One phrase in this article that interested me was “The average lifetime of a garment is probably about three years.”

Hmm. Not in my wardrobe. I know I was never much of a fashion victim, but in my wardrobe anything three years old would be termed “new”.

In previous centuries, when fashions were slower to change, even rich people kept their clothes much longer – I remember years ago reading some eighteenth-century noblewoman’s diary in which, amongst other things, she kept a note of what she wore and her yellow silk dress cropped up year after year after year.

Fashion may be good for the economy: I’m not sure it’s good for the planet.

And that was going to be my neat ending to this piece - but, guess what, I'm not sure, reading all that about how clothes are recycled, that it's bad for the planet either, though I suspect that it probably is. On the other hand, perhaps my disapproval of fashion is just because I haven't much interest in it.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Autumn in Yorkshire

Autumn in Yorkshire - beautiful, isn't it?

But where is it? Somewhere in the Dales, perhaps?

And where's this?

The top one's Roundhay Park in Leeds earlier this week.

The second one's very near the centre of Huddersfield.

Just wanted to remind Silverback, who is from Leeds but is currently in America, of a bit of Yorkshire scenery. The countryside's pretty good too.

The Fourth of November

Oh, it’s November 4th again.

November 4th was a Saturday in 1984 too and we had let our family’s annual firework party go ahead because it was too difficult to ring everyone and tell them our baby had been born early and was in hospital.

In the middle of the party, I became dimly aware of the phone ringing. It was the call from the hospital that we had been dreading for the past three weeks. The baby’s oxygen levels were now too low and they were going to disconnect the ventilator. Would we come in?

We went to the hospital and took it in turns to hold our baby as he died.

Shortly afterwards, a very young doctor was sent to talk to us.

He had been told to persuade us to allow a post mortem as they were not quite sure of the cause of death: was it simply that the baby was too premature, or was there some underlying illness?

Parents, he had been told, are often very resistant to the idea of a post mortem. They don’t like the idea of their child being cut open. You’re really going to have to work hard to persuade them.

In he came, terrified.

“I’ve come to ask you whether you’d mind very much if we did a post mortem.”

“No, that’ll be fine, we don’t mind at all” I replied.

But he wasn’t listening. He hadn’t even noticed he’d got consent.

“Because your baby might have died because he was just too young. Or he might have had some terrible lung disease.”

I tried to save him from himself.

“It’s fine about the post mortem, really. We know what it would involve.”

But he was unstoppable.

“Some terrible lung disease, such as cystic fibrosis. Which is incurable. People usually die really young from it. And if your baby had it, then any other children you might have would have a one in four chance of having it. And that’s really high odds. Really high. You’ve lost one baby – what if the next one was seriously ill with a greatly reduced life expectancy? So that’s why we need to get your agreement. We’d need to cut into your baby and take out samples of his lungs.”

“Yes, I know. And it’s fine. Please go ahead.”

“Because cystic fibrosis is a really, really terrible disease which brings terrible suffering to the children who have it - - “


“Oh.” He had finally started listening. He left.

Our baby didn’t have cystic fibrosis – he was simply born too early.

Thank goodness for the ever-increasing importance of Communication Skills sessions in medical schools. I have been working with medical students in this subject since 1985 in the hope that, one day, there will be no conversations like the one above.

Under a Blue West Yorkshire Sky

I was in Huddersfield this morning and it was a glorious late-autumn day, frosty with incredibly bright sunshine. I kept seeing lots of shapes against a very blue sky.

St. Peter's Church, which had steam coming out of its steeple:

A mill chimney - just what you'd expect in this West Yorkshire town - and more steam:

And former Prime Minister Harold Wilson outside the imposing train station, looking a bit cold:

I'm used to the bustle and congestion of Leeds, and Huddersfield in the early morning was a very pleasant change - far less traffic and much quieter. There are lots of interesting buildings in Huddersfield - it has very many listed buildings - and they looked majestic and beautiful in the sunshine.

Wherever you were in the world this morning, from Bridlington to Bilbao to Barbados, your skies were no bluer than they were in Huddersfield.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Emily's Flower Dungeon

After months of writing comments on my blog, my daughter Emily has finally started her own: read it here.

She's certainly an original thinker and I think she's a really interesting writer - and also very funny when she chooses to be.

Of course I think she's fantastic - I'm her mother. But judge for yourself.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Dreaming Emily Dickinson

I’ve always been rather intrigued by the poetry of Emily Dickinson, the solitary American nineteenth-century poet. She was one of the people in my mind when we chose a name for our daughter Emily, along with Emily Bronte. Both these Emilies struck me as quirky, interesting and original women and I hoped that our Emily would be the same (and guess what, she is).

I’ve mentioned before that I sometimes dream poems: last night I dreamed that I had discovered a long-lost poem by Emily Dickinson. As soon as I woke I scribbled it down, and here it is, complete with “her” characteristically odd punctuation and capital letters.

I saw the Hollow in my Heart –
And knew that you were gone –
And Everything that still remained
- I looked about – was None

And it came with a great feeling of sadness.

Now, why would I dream a poem in the style of Emily Dickinson – or in a style approximating to hers, anyway?

Those with more supernatural belief than I have might perhaps think there’s something Hallowe’eny going on (especially since it was Hallowe’en) – hey, I like her poetry, my daughter’s called Emily and, guess what, even looks a little bit like her. Is Miss Dickinson up there, calling to me?

I don’t think so. I think it’s to do with my own sense of loss, which has been ever-present since I lost my first baby in 1984, and it was at this time of year, so this is always a sad time for me. Loss has haunted me somewhat ever since: there’s always a fear of losing loved ones.

I think – and this is only a theory – that the poem was to distance me from the feeling. Dream a poem in the style of Emily Dickinson and it’s one step removed from dreaming your own poem. Easier to cope with.