Tuesday, July 31, 2007


In hotels throughout the land there is tea and coffee provided in the bedrooms, and a kettle to facilitate this.

I don't like all the tiny packs of coffee, and I don't like all the stuff which is called things like Eezikreem and claims to taste just like milk. But I can just about live with these.

What I can't stand is the kettle.

The kettle is invariably perched precariously on some dressing-table that was never meant to form a kettlish resting place.

There is never any water in the kettle and it doesn't ever fit under the taps in the sink, so you have to fill it from a glass.

But then, having done this, you can never find either a plug, or the kettle's lead. You have to lie across the dressing-table and grope blindly on the floor behind it until you find a socket. The lead is plugged into this, and its end has dropped on the floor, so, at full limit of your stretch, you feel your way along the lead until you find the end.

You lift the end of the lead up and it reaches just - but only just - over the edge of the dressing-table, so you have to back the kettle up carefully to the edge in order to plug the lead into the kettle. It is impossible to tell from the strange plastic hieroglyphics on the kettle itself which is on and which is off, so you try the switch both ways, and neither works.

This is because the socket on the floor has been switched off, probably by some malevolent cleaning lady getting a just revenge for her meagre wages. You return to groping behind the dressing-table and find the socket, but, in spite of doing a near-handstand with your legs waving frantically above, your arm isn't quite long enough to switch it on.

So you remove the kettle from the dressing-table, and heave the bed along a few inches so you can pull the dressing-table out enough to crawl behind it and switch the socket on.

You replace all furniture, and go back to trying to determine which is on and which is off on the kettle, and it takes a while to find out, because it takes ages for the kettle to heat up even when it's switched on because it was very, very cheap and only has about two watts of power. But you stick at it, and eventually the kettle boils. You can't pour it, of course, because the kettle lead is stretched so tightly in order to reach to the plug. So - and it never pays to be impatient, does it? - you pull the lead out of the kettle and the kettle jerks and boiling water splashes all over the dressing-table and all over your hand.

And finally you make your coffee in the tiny, tiny cup and you add the Eezikreem which has been sitting in the little pot for so many months that it's gone off, though actually it's hard to tell because it tasted so foul in the first place.

And this, dear reader, is the Standard Hotel Kettle Experience, which will be grimly familiar to many of you.

But, in stark contrast, here is the kettle in our room in the truly delightful Fron Dderw in Bala:

Even the biscuits were good. Veronica and Paul, thank you.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Summer Holiday

Summer Holiday, with Cliff Richard and the Shadows and Una Stubbs and That Girl who Played the Lead who was Never in Anything Else, was the first film I ever saw in the cinema. I thought it was cutting-edge and cool beyond measure and I was madly in love with Cliff. Mind you, I was only five. By the time I was six I had grown out of Cliff, though I still retain a sneaking affection for the title song with all its sixties boppiness.

Leaping forward into the present, where is ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair going for his Summer Holiday? Cliff Richard's mansion in Barbados, that's where.

Now who could have foreseen that one when Cliff and the boys were frolicking around on their London bus?

What's more, Tony and the Freeloaders (how's that for another Sixties band name?) have spent fifteen holidays, whilst Tony was Prime Minister, at the posh homes of businessmen, politicians and pop stars in the Caribbean, the USA and in bits of Europe that aren't Britain.

Now then, Tony, if you're reading this - and I expect you are, in between tennis lessons - did it not occur to you how offensive this was? Prime Minister, quite happy to tell all the British what to do, but didn't find Britain quite good enough to holiday in. Labour Party Prime Minister holidaying at the glamorous homes of rich businessmen in foreign climes. There's something about it that's just rather slimy.

Gordon Brown, new Prime Minister, seems to have picked up on this one. Because if it made me cross, he can be sure there's thousands, probably millions, infuriated by it.

So Gordon's off to some as yet unspecified resort on the South Coast with his wife Sarah and their two boys, and then he's off to Kirkcaldy for the rest of it. And quite right too. Children do not need glamorous locations for their holidays - they need a bucket and spade and new places to explore.

Amusingly, some of Gordon's team have noted this new puritanical atmosphere and are all falling over themselves to have less posh holidays than Gordon. Next year they'll all be camping in the Dales and you won't be able to find a pitch for politicians.

Here's a bit of Caldey Island, three miles from Tenby, that Tony Blair has missed out on. And I'm glad. Serves him right.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Cot Free Zone

If you get up high enough in the Welsh mountains, there are no cots (see previous post) or even cottages.
There tends to be a lot of mist.

There are high, winding roads and lakes:

I love this kind of scenery, the kind that doesn't take any shit from anyone and refuses to be tamed or to become some kind of North Wales theme park.

It's hard to tell the scale, to tell how big the mountains are. If you look on the top photograph, very near the bottom you will find some tiny white dots, and these are sheep. When you see them on the mountain they look the size of hedgehogs.

Though I acknowledge that it's just possible that the Wales Tourist Board has spent the past fifty years colonising their mountains with specially-bred hedgehog-sized sheep, just to intimidate the English tourists.

"So you think Helvellyn's big then, do you? HAH!"

Though they'd be saying it in Welsh, though, obviously.

Anyway, North Wales. Gorgeous. Don't tell anyone. Let's leave it alone.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

In the Land of the Mountains

I’m looking out of the window of Fron Dderw at a beautiful view of Bala in North Wales, surrounded by mountains. When I tell people the route we take from Leeds to Tenby, which is M62 to Manchester, then Mold – Bala – Aberystwyth – Cardigan – Tenby – through the mountains of North Wales and then down the coast – they often smile gently and say oh no, goodness me, that must take forever, why don’t you go on the motorways?

Well, we tried it once. It was about three-quarters of an hour faster, and really hideous. What’s more, if we’d have gone that way last weekend, we’d never have got there at all because of the floods.

But this way is beautiful – vast mountains, pretty villages. I invariably find myself singing that old song Cader Idris, which is better known in English as “O Give Me a Cot in the Land of the Mountains.”

“But why,” I asked, aged about twelve, when we were all singing it in a music lesson once, “would anyone want a cot in the land of the mountains? Unless the song’s supposed to be sung by a baby.”

The music teacher gave me one of those You Are Really Thick looks.

“Because cot, dear, in this song, is an abbreviation of cottage. I should have thought it was obvious.”

Well, no, it’s not obvious,a actually. Because I put it to you, m’lud, that this song is the ONLY PLACE EVER where “cot” is an abbreviation of “cottage”. Have you ever heard anyone say “We’ve been staying in a cot in Cumbria for our holidays” or “There are lots of thatched cots in Suffolk”? No, you haven’t, for nobody ever does and nobody ever did.

No, Cot as a shortened version of Cottage is just Bad Poetry Language. For Bad Poetry has a language all of its own: it is put there to give you a quick clue that the poem is going to be crap and you should stop reading now.

I haven’t time to explain it all here – in fact there’s probably a whole Christmas book in there somewhere – but here are just a couple of hints.

Any poem containing the word “did” in an odd place is going to be rubbish – “the birds did sing” is the kind of line I mean.

Any poem less than a hundred years old containing the words “thee” or “thou” (a few careful exceptions may exist in the Yorkshire dialect)

Any poem where lines start with “O” or where you get ridiculous abbreviations of words, eg “cot” for “cottage” – ah, yes, back to Cader Idris.

But “the land of the mountains” is an instantly evocative line, so the writer managed to pull it back a bit after a truly dreadful start. And the tune’s good too.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Diving In

Thank you all for your comments while I've been in Tenby (and I'm still there, using my slooooow laptop!)

A few of you commented on my mother's rescue of a little boy in the sea earlier this week so I thought I'd write a bit more about her.

Here’s a photograph, taken by Stephen, of my mother, aged eighty-three and a quarter, diving into the Park Hotel open-air pool earlier this week. Health and Safety have insisted on several No Diving notices as the pool is only about four feet six deep, but my mother has been diving into it for over forty years so pays them no attention at all.

“There’s a photo of you diving in, and I’m going to put it on my blog,” I told her.

“But is it a good dive? Are my legs straight? Are my toes pointed?” she enquired.

“Actually, Mum, the bit that interests me most – ignoring the strange shower cap that you’re wearing – is the fact that you’re eighty-three and a quarter. Not many people of that age go round diving into pools, let alone open-air ones.”

But my mother is, exercise-wise, quite a phenomenon. Here’s what she did today.

She started the day with fifty lengths of the hotel pool before breakfast. It’s about half the size of a municipal pool, so about twenty-five lengths of an ordinary-sized pool – at least half a kilometre. She swims quite fast, back crawl mostly, and you have to yell at her to stop her bumping her head at the end of every length, which is quite tricky as she’s pretty deaf.

Then after breakfast we all walked the mile or so down from the hotel to Tenby Harbour, and caught a boat to the beautiful Caldey Island. We walked across to the other side of Caldey – about a mile – round lots of pretty footpaths and coves for another mile or so, and then a mile back to the boat for the trip back to Tenby (and oh, glorious sunshine, glorious it was). Though none of the paths was flat and some were very steep.

On the way back to the hotel Stephen and I had to buy a few things in Tenby and my mother didn’t fancy this: she hates all shopping. She had thoughtfully brought her swimsuit and towel with her so left us to our shopping in order to swim in the sea for half-an-hour or so, and then climbed the steep cliff path back to the hotel. Finding me now swimming in the hotel pool, she put her costume straight back in and did another twenty-five lengths before dinner.

After dinner we all went down the cliff path, along the beach for half a mile or so, back up the cliff and back to the hotel.

When my mother was sixty-eight she had quite a major stroke and it took her about a year, but she made nearly a full recovery. She reckons it’s slowed her down a bit, though.

In her youth my mother was captain of Leeds University hockey team – she loves all those competitive sports that I don’t like at all. But exercise-wise, she’s amazing. But because she’s my mother, I tend to take it for granted. And I do know that part of it is down to good luck – because the Communist, who has always kept pretty active himself, now can’t walk at all at the age of eighty-three and three quarters.

As soon as I get back from Tenby – where I too have done lots and lots of swimming and walking – I’m going straight back on the cross-trainer, and straight back to the swimming pool. I’ve got half my mother’s genes, and I’m going to put them to good use.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Butter Trebuchet

Yesterday it was very nearly sunny again and we went to Carew Castle, which is a very pleasant castle near Tenby with a huge millpond, because there’s an old tidal mill there too, which I found as interesting as the castle.

Here’s the castle in the foreground, the millpond and the mill on the tidal river in the background.

When the tide was in, lots of water was stored in the millpond, and then when the tide went out this water could be used to power the mill wheel to grind the corn.

Here’s Emily looking out over the tidal river:

Inside the mill was Swallow Cam, a camera focused on a swallow’s nest with all the chicks. Some swallow chicks from a different nest decided to fledge whilst we were there: they came out of the mill and off they went across the millpond to practise their flying for their long journey to Africa.

There were some re-enactment people in the castle giving demonstrations of what life was like in the Olden Days. Of course, one of the things they did in the Olden Days was to attack castles with a machine called a trebuchet which fired great rocks over the castle walls.

Emily has invented her own version called the Butter Trebuchet. It is mainly used between courses at breakfast and dinner in the hotel. You take a fork, lie it on its back and put a pat of butter on the other end. The forks at Park Hotel are particularly suitable for this as they have flat handles.

Then you press down suddenly on the tines of the fork and the butter flies into the air in a surprisingly spectacular manner. Of course, this kind of thing at dinner is not Manners. I blame the parents.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Oh No, it's Up to My Toe

In the days when I used to run Thrilling Activities for primary-school age children, one of the action songs that always went down well was this:

Oh I’m being eaten by a boa constrictor
A boa constrictor, a boa constrictor
Oh I’m being eaten by a boa constrictor
And I don’t like it one little bit.

Oh no, it’s up to my toe
Oh gee, it’s up to my knee
Oh my, it’s up to my thigh
Oh fiddle, it’s up to my middle
Oh heck, it’s up to my neck
Oh dread, it’s up to my - - (loud gulping noise)

Emily wants a summer job. Not to buy clothes or make-up or alcohol or other things that very-soon-to-be-eighteen-year-olds buy. No, she wants a boa constrictor to add to the three geckos, one corn snake and a cat (though the cat is, I reckon, mine).

If I were a proper type of mother I would be saying things like Oh No There’s No Way Forget It and By The Way You’re Not Going Out Looking Like That.

(nb I think she looks great, but I know that’s the sort of thing mothers are supposed to say).

The thing is, reared on the books of Gerald Durrell, I always wanted to keep such animals myself, but was not allowed to: and anyway, in those days, there just wasn’t the information available to keep them properly.

Boa constrictors tend to be large – the males are about six feet long (almost two metres, for those who prefer metric) but the females can be twice that . Our corn snake, Kelloggs, is about four feet six but much thinner than a boa constrictor. The females can take two people to lift them: so Emily wants a male.

However, unlike pythons, boas are placid, lazy snakes who just want to lie around all day thinking profound thoughts, and occasionally having a swim. They regard people as a pleasant form of warm tree, so like being handled, and, luckily, are not prone to trying to eat their owners.

There’s a place in Birmingham apparently that keeps abandoned boas in need of new homes – lots of people get large snakes as status symbols and then lose interest in them. One of these could be heading our way in the future, I can tell. But don’t worry, friends and neighbours, they are not poisonous and it will be in a large and very secure vivarium.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Parenting Skills

We were in Tenby’s wonderful vivarium, Silent World, yesterday. A couple had brought their little boy, but didn’t seem to want to discuss the many creatures there with him at all. They talked only to each other, and if the little boy wanted them to listen to him he found he had to say everything seventeen times, with increasing loudness, thus:

“Fish. Fish. Fish. Fish. Fish. FISH. FISH. FISH . FISH. FISH.”

“Yes, it’s a fish. So, as I was saying - - “

You get the general idea. In an enclosed space this rapidly became really rather annoying, and then intensely infuriating, though, as Emily pointed out, it really wasn’t the child’s fault at all.

Meanwhile, upstairs, a mother was explaining to a fascinated child of similar age all about the ant colony: how the ants take leaves and flowers from this pile, here, and then climb up the rope and go through the glass tube right across the room to their nest right over there, look - -

(Mind you, some might counsel against that approach too – that’s what we did with Emily when she was small and the result is currently three geckos and a corn snake in our house, with the looming possibility of a boa constrictor - - but, you see, although that might be some parents’ idea of hell, it isn’t mine.)

In the afternoon we had a rather more serious demonstration of crap parenting skills. It was cold and raining slightly so my mother, age eighty-three and a quarter, was of course swimming in the sea.

Also in the sea were three young boys, aged about eight: one with a bodyboard and one with one of those long thin buoyancy aids that are so annoying when they block half a swimming pool as the beginner goes along very slowly in the middle (look, I’m sorry if I appear to be turning into Disapproving Daily Mail Reader, I think it’s all this rain.)

The boy with the long thin buoyancy aid let go of it, and it floated out to sea, as the tide was going out. He swam after it, and then realised he couldn’t get back in again.

I was on the beach, taking photos of my mother swimming, when I saw what was happening – but by the time I’d thought I’d better go in after this lad, my mother, age eighty-three and a quarter, had already swum to him, grabbed him and brought him back to shore.

The parents, sitting chatting a hundred yards or so up the beach, never noticed any of it.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

How Green Was My Bala

Terrible pun I know, sorry. Not sorry enough to delete it though, obviously.

I wrote the below last night but the signal wasn't strong enough in Bala to post it:

Here we are in beautiful Bala, North Wales and I have never seen the countryside so green. Here’s the view from Fron Dderw, which is the hotel where we’re staying tonight before travelling to Tenby tomorrow..

Fron Dderw is a beautiful country house – a bit posher than my normal choice of bed and breakfast, but we’ve been coming here for a number of years, during which time it’s been redecorated and restored. In a good way.

When we first came it was owned by Mr and Mrs Jones and was a bit hit-and-miss: the milk tended to be sour and it was all a bit basic but we chose it for the wonderful views.

Then they sold it to another Mr and Mrs Jones who were kind, Christian folk, very pleasant but a bit twee for my taste: little mottoes everywhere.

Then it was sold again to the present owners, Paul and Veronica, who have done it up wonderfully, revealing a centuries-old stone fireplace and packing it with books and paintings which I love, especially their Gustav Klimt prints.

It’s a friendly place in a beautiful setting with, as I remember, a superb breakfast, which I’m looking forward to enjoying in the morning before going on to Tenby.

The Communist’s in the nursing home, seems much happier and can use his mobile there, so we can ring him. He had had soup and egg and chips for tea and been offered bacon and eggs for breakfast. He had declined, saying he’ll just have cereal, but the important thing was that he was offered it and feels he’s finally escaped from the Ward of Doom back to civilisation. How he’ll manage to sleep without Mad George howling in the bed opposite I don’t know.

Perhaps I’m daring to think, at last, that I might be going on holiday. Fingers crossed.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Blue Skies

Here's a picture I took this morning of the Leaning Towers of Leeds:

And here's an exciting photo of Leeds University Sports Centre, where I was again involved in tormenting some student doctors with an exam:

Never mind the things on the ground, look at the sky.


Just to remind anyone who can't remember, that's what it looks like when it doesn't have clouds in it.

And I'm off to Tenby in search of some more of it tomorrow. The Communist is coming out of hospital and going to a nursing home: my brother's here from Amsterdam to look after him: the rest of us are going to Tenby in South Wales for a week, where there are clean seas and golden sands and beautiful walks, and where we've been many, many times for rest and restoration. This year in particular, we could all do with the break.

But tonight when I visited the Communist he was sleepy and weak and I didn't want to go away and leave him behind. So I'm planning to wait until he's in the nursing home and then visit him before we leave. And I still feel terrible: though even through his sleepiness he knew exactly what was happening, and is pleased to be moving from the Ward of Doom.

So perhaps that was my last visit to that ward. Mad George was asleep. Polite Ted was nowhere to be seen - the staff were beginning to wonder where he was. When I arrived the ward door was open, unusually. I like to think that Polite Ted had made a run for it and is even now on a train chugging along to somewhere lovely.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Interesting Climes

We're all a bit bored, here in Blighty, with this endless cool dampness punctuated by torrential deluges and half-hour slots of weak sunshine. The tiny bursts of tantalising sunshine are just to remind us that it's summer before they are snatched from us again and replaced by rain and cold.

Today I was working on a student doctors' exam in Leeds University Sports Hall and at one point the rain was so loud I couldn't hear what the candidate was saying.

Yesterday, as I left the hospital after visiting the Communist, so much rain fell on me on the way back to the car park that I was actually wading through water two inches deep on the pavement and the phrase "soaked to the skin" had its literal meaning for once. It was so wet it was almost interesting in its very wetness.

So, rain rain, grumble grumble, British hobby. But unless you're one of the people whose houses have been invaded by several feet of water, it's no more than an inconvenience.

On the other hand, it could be much worse. Checking the weather in various parts of the world, so as to add ammunition to my grumblings, I noticed the weather in Kosovo. The reason I looked at Kosovo is because my friend John is currently Summer School Director for the Kosovo Youth Education Project, for children who were orphaned during the war about a decade ago.

Here's the weather forecast there:

Thursday SUNSHINE 38 degrees Centigrade, 100 degrees Fahrenheit
Friday SUNSHINE 39 degrees Centigrade, 102 degrees Fahrenheit
Saturday SUNSHINE 40 degrees Centigrade, 104 degrees Fahrenheit
Sunday SUNSHINE 41 degrees Centigrade, 105 degrees Fahrenheit
Monday SUNSHINE 38 degrees Centigrade, 100 degrees Fahrenheit

I have only once been in forty-degree heat and that was in France four years ago, on the day that many people died from the heat. We arrived at our campsite and couldn't get into the caravan as they were mending the shower: and we couldn't get into the pool as all our swimming things were packed in the cases in the car.

I lay in the semi-shade - the best I could find - under some pine trees, just astonished by how hot it was.

In Kosovo they are running lots of interesting activities for over a hundred children - a wonderful project. But working in that heat - - no! I can't begin to imagine it. Tomorrow, when it rains here, as I'm sure it will, I shan't grumble.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Best Salad

I'm a bit puritanical about food - I like it simple and I get annoyed by restaurants where everything runny is called jus and the recipes are things like caramelised duck beaks filled with squid ink and dark chocolate and the prices are horrendous.

I just don't like food that's been messed about with too much: and I think - probably erroneously - that it's somehow wrong to spend hours making a dish when something much simpler is just as nourishing.

In the office yesterday my colleague Dan and I were reminiscing about Salads of the Seventies; and not with much affection, either. In those days a "ham salad", say, was a couple of squares of processed ham with half a tomato, probably cut with zig zags if it was a posh place, and if anyone would like to learn this exciting trick I can teach you, because they actually taught me this at school.

Next to the half a tomato would be a couple of lettuce leaves and a few slices of cucumber, and half a boiled egg. Maybe a chunk of spring onion if you were lucky. The dressing was Heinz Salad Cream (and I still like it, so there).

When they talk about the improvements of the last thirty years salads are rarely mentioned, I notice, but salads have in fact improved beyond measure.

In the Lake District, in Glenridding on Ullswater, the week before last, in a cafe called Fellbites where the waitress was a friendly Australian woman, I had the nicest salad I've ever eaten, and here it is:

All it consisted of was avocado, mango - both perfectly ripe - various green leaves, some croutons, shavings of Parmesan cheese and French dressing.

It was both simple and delicious. Okay, so Education is dumbing itself down as fast as possible, and the NHS is a crumbling mess, but on the salad front, at least, things are looking up.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Howling Man

Against all odds the Communist is quite a lot better and they are going to try to send him to a nursing home after tomorrow if he continues to improve.

One of the odds that he's been up against is Mad George.

Mad George is in the bed opposite and is totally senile and very ill. Sometimes he sleeps, immobile, for a couple of hours: but when he's awake, or half-awake, he mostly howls. He howls at the top of his voice. Sometimes he makes loud growling noises. Sometimes he makes vomiting noises. Sometimes he actually vomits.

When George is conscious for a while, he shouts aggressively and fruitlessly at Polite Ted in the next bed, who apologises so politely "I'm very very sorry" that I can't stand it and I want to cry. But I can't because that would upset the Communist even more than the howling and bawling.

All the time that the Communist has been in that hospital, Mad George has been in the bed opposite. For several hours a day the Communist and Polite Ted and the ever-changing occupant of the fourth bed have to put up with it. But at least Polite Ted is able to wander out of the bay from time to time: the Communist can't move.

Mad George is clearly in incredible distress. If he were your dog, what would you do? - You know the answer. It's terrible to watch him.

On the other hand, it's terrible for the Communist who has to put up with this agonising racket. And when my mother comes to visit, the combination of the fluorescent lights and the howling gives her a migraine.

Today, when Mad George had been howling for an hour without a break, my mother lost it. She shouted at him to be quiet. Then she went and found the ward staff and shouted at them. She told him, correctly, that the noise is making the Communist thoroughly miserable. She asked why Mad George can't be moved to another bay? Or to a side room?

I wasn't there whilst this was going on: I was trying to cheer up the Communist and simultaneously point out to a nearby nurse that Mad George was being sick on the floor. But the staff my mother had found seemed to be saying to my mother that Mad George can't be moved because there's nowhere to move him to, and anyway the Communist should be leaving hospital in a few days. (This, by the way, is a really crap reason. An hour of this howling is equal to ten days in somewhere more pleasant).

But why they can't at least swap Mad George for another patient for a while, to give that bay a break, I really don't know. The Communist is coping with it better than I would. If I were in the bed opposite Mad George, I would be screaming, loud and long.

And this is supposed to be a place of recovery and rest. What the hell are we playing at? I feel a letter to my MP coming on.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Hedgehog - The Poem DH Lawrence Never Wrote

A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.

In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carob-tree
I came down the steps with my pitcher
And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was at the trough before me.

Well, that was DH Lawrence in his poem Snake, on the day of Sicilian July, with Etna smoking

If old DH had been in Leeds his poem would have been thus:

A hedgehog came to my plant-pot
On a cold cold day, and I in my black fleece for the cold

and a bit later on there'd have been a line about on the day of Leeds July, with it still raining

Snakes may be things of poetry, but hedgehogs somehow aren't: they're too round and cute-looking. I don't think it's possible to write a serious poem about something that snuffles and kicks up its back feet as it walks.
This one was a youngster, and we found it drinking out of the plant-pot holder on the patio.

They like cat food - the traditional British hedgehog food of bread and milk is really bad for them - so we gave it some cat food. It was very hungry, which was probably why it was out and about in the daytime.

Hedgehogs make a lot of noise in the night - in fact they sound like pigs, hence the name - and they can walk about three miles a night in their search for food, which is mostly worms and slugs.

Since it appeared on the patio we've seen it several more times and keep feeding it. Yesterday's rain has brought out lots of slugs and worms so there should be plenty of food for it now. I hope it'll stay in the garden, though I shan't be writing poetry about it.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Musical Interlude

It's my birthday tomorrow, but a rather different one from last year's when my friends took me out for a meal for my birthday and then arranged a day on a narrowboat which proved to be one of my favourite days - - well, ever.

This year the Communist's in hospital and it's the actors' agency monthly meeting tomorrow, so I'll be working for most of the day and anyway I'm not really in celebratory mood.

So here's a video that I like, to stop me wallowing in self-pity. I have shamelessly nicked it from the blog where I found it: Imagined Community, always worth reading. Good song, excellent lyrics, great chorus, interesting video. Hope you like it and thanks to Ian for posting it in the first place.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Puritanical Scot and the Gambling

I took my eye off the ball for a little while, because I was worrying about the Communist's illness, and they craftily seized the opportunity to swap Prime Ministers, which I think was a bit of a dirty trick and they should have told me.

But- hard though it is to bring myself to say it - I'm warming to Gordon. Having voted for the Supercasino in Manchester when Tony was in power, Gordon's now turned round and said look, I'm in charge now, and you can stuff it.

Which is roughly what I would have said. Not that I'm averse to gambling. I once won £2.25 on an office sweep on the Derby and was very pleased indeed.

Six places were shortlisted as sites for this possible Supercasino, which would have had slot machines with unlimited prizes, and each site spent about £200,000 on their bid (can I just pop in here that this amount would pay for a lot of care assistants on geriatric wards? Not that I've got an axe to grind, or anything). Then they set up a Casino Advisory Panel, at a cost of £400,000 (yes, you can hear what I'm thinking) and they wrote such things as "Manchester" and "Blackpool" on bits of paper, put them in a hat and drew out the one that said "Manchester".

The point of Tony's Supercasino, apparently, was to regenerate the city by creating lots of jobs.

Here are some things to build to regenerate a city (and I could provide a fuller list upon request, oh yes): cinema theatre ice rink roller skating rink art gallery swimming pool squash courts badminton courts tennis courts climbing wall - things that would provide jobs and enjoyable activities for the people who live there.

A Supercasino? In contrast, what a sterile, cynical way of providing jobs. All it would do is give an opportunity for very rich people to squander their money - and, worse, an opportunity for very poor people to squander what money they have in the hope of a big win that would get them out of poverty.

There'll always be casinos, but I don't think the Government should be encouraging them. The Supercasino was just one element of Tony's culture-free vision for Britain, and I'm glad that Gordon's dumped it. Come on Gordon, impress me a bit more now, please.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Good open-air Shakespeare on a summer's evening is one of The Best Things.

On Sunday I went to see Phoenix and Turtle (the summer company of Theatre of the Dales) performing - perhaps appropriately for much of the weather we've had recently - A Winter's Tale at the Quaker Meeting House in Rawdon.
Somewhat surprisingly, it was a lovely, sunny evening. I took lots of photographs of this excellent, extremely enjoyable production. One hallmark of this company is that the story is always very clear - that's so important, especially when the actors play more than one role. There's a touch of Bollywood too, which is very appropriate for this play.
It's strange, though, because photos of open-air theatre never show quite what you expect. You're watching the play and so you're mentally in Bohemia or wherever: your brain screens out the fact that you're in Rawdon and there are lots of audience all over the place.
So you tend to get photos like this:

Something going on in the foreground, which is the photo I thought I was taking, and lots of people watching in the background.

Also, the light is not often where you wanted - just sometimes it gets it right and the last rays of evening sunlight hit in just the right place:

But sometimes one actor gets more light than another:

And you can just see the top of a gravestone in the foreground, because the performance area was an old churchyard.

Sadly, Emily missed it as she wasn't feeling very well. But this gives us the chance to see it again, at Knaresborough Castle, next Wednesday 18 July at 7.30 - tel 01423 556188.

And you can also see it on
Sunday, 15 July at 3.30pm at The Green, Heaton Grove, Bradford 9 01274 548947

Sunday, 22 July 7pm, Jervaulx Abbey, between Masham and Leyburn, up in the Yorkshire Dales and a glorious venue: 0113 2742231

Friday, 27 July 7.30pm, Sledmere House, near Driffield 01377 236637

But - I hear you cry - I'm reading this from America, or Belgium, or Sydney, or somewhere else a long way away. Well, now's your chance for a trip to Britain. Everyone always says how pantomime is the great British winter tradition: well, Shakespeare in the rain is rapidly becoming the great British summer tradition. And who knows, it might even be sunny. Get on the plane and see!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

My Heroic Rescue

Ah well, perhaps it wasn't that heroic. Not like climbing the Old Man of Hoy in a blizzard to rescue someone from the top. Not like crawling across the ice of a frozen lake. Not like running into the burning building. Not like saving the fair maiden from the ferocious dragon. Not like - - oh, look, I'm running out of heroic examples. It wasn't that heroic, agreed. But it was a bit of a rescue.

This afternoon, whilst we were visiting the Communist in his gloomy geriatric ward, Polite Ted was, as usual, wandering the ward like a little bent ghost, pausing from time to time to enquire of anyone passing, in a gentlemanly way, what was supposed to be happening. Backwards and forwards he goes, up to the nurses' station, and then he's brought back gently by a nurse.

One time he passed me and exclaimed in surprise, "Oh! Excuse me, ladies!"

I turned to look, just in time to see him fall over backwards. I leapt up, grabbed him and pushed him to the left so he was balanced on the rubbish bin at the end of the ward.

"Help! Can someone come, please?" I shouted loudly and clearly and two male nurses instantly came running up the corridor, took hold of him and led him back to bed.

Incident over. But if I hadn't been there, Polite Ted would have fallen over backwards and landed either heavily on top of Mad George, or on the floor, probably striking his head on Mad George's bed on his way.

How many such incidents are narrowly avoided every day? And how many happen? Of course, if poor Polite Ted was prevented from getting out of bed, he'd be physically safe - but very distressed.

One answer would be to have one care assistant permanently positioned in each four-bedded bay, to chat to those, such as the Communist, who would benefit from having someone to talk to, and to watch out for anyone who needed anything. Ah, but could we afford this? Compared to the money that's splashed around on any corporate event, it would be very little.

But pioneering heart surgery, say, is cutting-edge and sexy and geriatric care just isn't. The Communist fell out of bed himself the other day, trying to reach the radio because there was nobody within earshot to pass it to him. And next time Polite Ted, or the Communist, or any one of the thousands of elderly people in hospital falls over, it might result in serious injury or death. But we don't care, do we? - or perhaps we do care, but we prefer not to think about it until it's first our grandparents, and then our parents, staying in those sad wards.

And, sooner than we think, it'll be us.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

They Just Stand There

In Morecambe Bay sheep graze on the grass at low tide. At high tide, the sea comes in incredibly fast and covers the grass. On television I saw an interview with a farmer who was asked if the sheep ran from the approaching sea.

"No," he said gloomily. "You have to round them up. They don't run. They just stand there."

That's sheep for you. They don't seem very good at decision-making. Here are some rather picturesque sheep which I spotted near Ullswater in the Lake District last week.

Horses, too, just stand there, sometimes. Emily and Gareth went riding one day and while the horses were waiting to be ridden they were in a huge barn. From the barn came the sound of near-complete silence. Closer investigation showed about fifteen horses, all motionless, like a still photograph. Here are some of them:

Totally still, totally silent. What, I wondered, were they thinking? Why didn't they wander round and communicate with each other? If horses have Powersaver Mode, this lot were most certainly in it.

Cows don't seem to stand stock still very often - if they do, it's because they're chewing the cud. If cows have any thoughts they seem to be along the lines of "Now what's THAT?" We walked past a field of cows one evening. We looked at them, and, as one cow, they all advanced to look at us, until they were peering over the gate in astonishment.

So, which of these are the Einsteins of farm animals and which the Bear of Little Brain? Instinct - yes, these awards are completely science-free - tells me that the results are as follows:

In ascending order:

You can't train sheep and they don't seem to learn things much. Their motto, embroidered on every fleece, is "Keep Together". If you could hear sheep muttering to each other, you would hear them saying "Keep together. Eat grass. Keep together. Eat grass."

Cows seem a bit brainier than sheep and they can at least learn the way back to the cowshed. They have a lot of natural curiosity but I'm not sure what it's for, because in many millennia of evolution they have failed to produce even one significant invention. I like the milk, though.

Mankind has always had a close relationship with horses so we like to think they must be clever. They do look cleverer than cows, but then again, most things do. Horses have big brown eyes which seem to suggest they're thinking deep thoughts, but they're probably not. However, I admire their ability, when things are dull, to put themselves on Standby and switch off, and I wish I could do it sometimes. So they win first prize.

We also passed a field of alpacas. I was slightly confused to find these in Cumbria and can make no comments as to their supposed intelligence or lack of it. Apologies.

Thank You

Thanks to all of you who have sent good wishes to the Communist either by email or via comments on my blog.

He was again remarkably alert today and I have passed on all the good wishes - he was delighted.
Here he is today in the bright, cheery colours of the ward (hah!)

Monday, July 09, 2007

Black Comedy

"Excuse me," asks Ted politely, tugging at my sleeve, "but could I borrow some money? I have to sign this document and take it back."

He hands me the document, which turns out to be a slipper. I thank him and point him gently in the direction of his bed. Ted spends most of his time tapping on the window or trying, in a somewhat disorganised way, to pack everything up to go home. He politely wanders out of the bay - "Excuse me, is it left or right here?" and then meanders as far as the nurses' station, where they intercept him and bring him back. Sometimes his wife, son and grandson, all perky and delightful, arrive and talk to him and he seems happy. But as soon as they've gone, he's back to his eternal packing and wandering, like a ghost.

"Um Um Um Um Um Um Um Um" says Mad George, in the opposite bed to the Communist. He spends much of his time making this sad, moaning noise. Occasionally the noise changes, and he vomits, loud and long. Sometimes I want to kill him to put him out of his misery. At other times I want to kill him to put me out of mine.

There are four beds in this bay of the ward. Opposite Polite Ted is Sane George Who Nicks the Television. A different George, this. There is only one television in the ward and Sane George keeps it all to himself, turned entirely towards his bed, so nobody else can see it. From time to time the nurses get fed up of George's television-hogging and unplug it and Sane George complains, loudly.

"Try pretending you're in a very bad sitcom, Dad," I said to the Communist. He laughed. After a few days on some strong drugs, which made the Communist so sleepy he could barely open his eyes, one of the drugs had worn off, and suddenly, here he was, back again, just as usual, when I never thought he would be.

"Did you bring me some orange juice?" asked the Communist. He asked for it yesterday, in the middle of what seemed to be a near-coma, and yet he remembered.

"The workmen outside cut through a pipe and cut off the water to the entire wing today," he said. "And I tried to get the radio and fell out of bed. How was Gareth's first day at work? How's Emily getting on now her exams have finished?"

Astonishing. It was like a miracle. Two hours we stayed: Emily and Gareth joined us: the Communist was awake and lucid the whole time.

"I want to go home," he said. On days like this, I very nearly dare hope that one day he might.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Big and Getting Bigger

Ullswater is one of the most beautiful lakes in the Lake District - big and surrounded by mountains. There's a ferry that goes from Glenridding at the Southern end, via Howtown in the middle, to Pooley Bridge at the North end. If you get the ferry from Glenridding to Howtown and then walk back it's a stunning walk - about six or seven miles. Stephen and I did it with Emily a few years ago and loved it.

Here's part of the lake near Howtown:

Usually there's a little beach at the edge in some places, and it's good to skim pebbles and look at the view, for indeed it's difficult to find a view round Ullswater that's not worth looking at.

No beaches at the moment though. As anyone who lives in England knows, there's been lots and lots of rain recently and the beaches have all gone. In fact, even the trees round the lake are now paddling:

I have never seen the lake so full. More to the point, neither has my mother who has spent as much time as possible in the Lakes throughout her eighty-three years.

Ullswater's something like nine miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide. How much rain was needed to make the lake several feet deeper and wider than usual? After careful thought and a few calculations I can give you the answer and it is LOTS AND LOTS AND LOTS.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Sending the Boys Round

Well, I'm back from the Lake District - and very lovely it is too. More of that later. But now - one of the subjects dear to my heart - - it is Getting People to Pay Up. I'm sure I've written about it before but a friend of mine's currently owed loadsamoney by some people who seem set to stall payment until the next millennium using a variety of shallow pretexts and it's stirred me up again.

In the actors' agency I work for, we send out lots of invoices. Some people pay straight away, and Hurrah for them. Since actors usually have no regular source of income, if they do some work in January, it's really useful if they get the money in January too.

And, of course, some smaller companies don't pay us until they get the money from the client, and in general we are very understanding when this happens. Interestingly, when the client is some massive multinational, payment is invariably slower than when it's a tiddly company who understands that people need to be, and indeed deserve to be, paid.

But then you get the "we pay on the statement" merchants. You send them an invoice. Nothing happens. After a while - thirty days, say - you ring them up.
"Hello, I'm ringing to enquire about our invoice, which is now overdue - - "
"Have you sent us a statement?"
"A STATEMENT. Have you sent us one?"
"No. I sent you an invoice. You haven't paid it."
"Ah well, you see, we pay on the statement."
"What does that mean?"
"Well, at the end of the month you need to send us a statement of all your outstanding invoices. Then, when you've told us what they are, we pay them."
"But you know what they are. You've got the invoices."
"Ah yes, but we need you to tell us again."

There is no point in arguing. It just makes me crosser and it doesn't get the money. You just have to send the flaming statement.

Then there are the Purchase Order Bastards. You send them an invoice. Nothing happens. After a while, you ring them up.
"Hello, I'm ringing to enquire about our invoice, which is now overdue."
You can hear the sound of nails being filed in the background.
"Caugimme - - "
The filing stops briefly.
"Purchase Order Number. Can. You. Give. It. To. Me?"
"We never had a purchase order."
"Oh well, they shouldn't have asked you to do any work without one. We can't pay you without a purchase order."
"But we asked at the time and were told we didn't need one."
"Oh well, they shouldn't have asked you to do any work without one. We can't pay you without a purchase order."
"Yes, yes, I heard. - - So what should I do about it?"
"You'll need to ring Michelle in the department that booked you. She's in on Thursdays. Mind, you, she's on holiday this week. You'll have to get her to generate a purchase order. Then you can send another invoice."
"And when is this invoice likely to be paid?"
"Our payment terms are the end of the following month after the month when we receive the invoice. So it should be paid at the end of August."
"But our actor did the work in April."
The nail file recommences.
"Yes, but they shouldn't have asked you to do any - - "

Sometimes at this point I go into a whole new area, enquiring whether she, Madam Nailfile, has had her pay for April yet, and whether she would feel a teensy bit pissed off if she hadn't. It does no good at all but I quite enjoy it.

I find that incompetence, rather than downright evil, is the general reason that people are slow to pay. But just occasionally, there are people who book actors - or plumbers, or builders, or any small business - to do some work and just stall, and stall, and stall, and intend never to pay if they can possibly help it. And they are bastards and I hate them and I want to send the boys with baseball bats round.

Just once, I managed to say the best, most satisfying retort to one of these people. I had threatened to contact the actors' union, Equity, over an invoice which was six months overdue.

"Oh well," he said, "if you're going to be like that, we won't want to work with you again."

"Right," I said, "and now could you please explain how that will be any loss at all to us?"

He did pay up. He didn't send a compliments slip with the cheque. We've never worked with them again. Fuck them.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Virtually On Holiday

I'm virtually on holiday. By which I mean that I'm supposed to be in a cottage near Penrith in the Northern Lake District.

But tonight, my physical embodiment is back in Leeds.

We were all supposed to be going on holiday: Stephen and I, the Communist and my mother, Emily and Gareth. The cottage was booked in February, because the Communist always thinks that if he has a holiday booked, he'll have to be alive when it happens.

But then the Communist got ill: and indeed is still in hospital.

My mother was worn out by looking after him before he was taken into hospital. Emily has just done her A-levels through this very difficult time. We all needed a break. So I hit on a compromise: we would all go, and then I would dash back after the weekend to see how the Communist was getting on (and thanks to lovely Alex who visited him at every visiting time during the weekend).

But I just couldn't bring myself to tell my mother. All the others knew of my Cunning Plan, but my mother would have panicked, and worried about me driving All That Way, and would have thought she should come with me - - - so, having had a very enjoyable boat trip on Derwentwater this morning, and booked them all theatre tickets for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the excellent Theatre by the Lake this evening, I left my family feeding the ducks, and fled back to my car, and drove off.

Not as self-sacrificing as it sounds, missing the play, for though I love theatre, my bad leg means that I find it very difficult to sit through a whole play without getting cramp, and my screams tend to annoy audiences rather. So I thought this was a good compromise, though I do feel bad about running off without explaining to my mother. It's just that her first reaction would have been "oh no, you can't possibly" - - and I was determined to go, because I wanted to see the Communist and to check up on his care.

And it was a good job I did. No visiting on Monday afternoons, because of ward cleaning, so my brother, who has come over from Amsterdam while we're in the Lake District, couldn't see the Communist until this evening.

Ward cleaning? The floor was covered in unidentified sticky liquid in which the Communist was paddling his feet, near to which lay one of his tablets, which he had dropped because his hands shake. The sticky liquid, we found out after some investigation, was probably a drink which the man in the opposite bed, who is somewhat confused, had thrown at a doctor some time earlier.

The Communist was miserable and wants to come home but actually any other reaction could be seen as definite signs of insanity. It's a grim, sad ward with some staff who really care and some who really don't.

Although we were told on Friday that the Communist is to be sent for an MRA scan, oh look, the doctor hadn't put him forward for it yet and it might take a couple of weeks to arrange. But, the nurse said chirpily, he's been written up for morphine tablets for the pain in his legs.

Now he was on morphine tablets, known as MST, a few weeks ago, and had a terribly bad reaction to it which very nearly killed him, and that was what got him taken into the nursing home, and thence to hospital, in the first place.

So I'm glad I came home to see him, even though my brother's here to visit every day, because it was good to see the old Communist, and because I was glad I was able to say NO! DON'T GIVE HIM MST!

Tomorrow I'm back to the Lake District, which is, as always, wonderful even in spite of the heavy showers: and to the rest of my family. It's hard being in two places at once.