Friday, November 30, 2007

Thy Kingdom Come

I'm going to plunge right in here.

I was driving along the M62 on the way to Hull today, and by the side of the road was one of those lorries with an advertising hoarding on its side.

"Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and You Will Be Saved."

At the same time, on the radio, there was a discussion going on about the fact that Tony Blair said he didn't mention his religious faith much when he was Prime Minister in case he was branded a "nutter".

A man calling himself a Secular Activist said (and I paraphrase) that if people wanted to go round believing in fictional characters (his description) then that was fine, but that he didn't think that they should have a say in how the country was run - he mentioned bishops being in the House of Lords, for example.

A woman calling herself a Christian (it doesn't matter what denomination she was) said that if Secular Activist Man didn't believe in God that was fine, because God still believed in him. She said that the absence of religious beliefs in this country showed in the lack of moral values: teenagers carrying knives and many abortions were two things that she mentioned.

By the time I got to Hull I was shouting at the radio.

Firstly, I don't think any kind of advertising should be allowed on the sides of lorries on fields next to roads - if this kind of thing isn't put a stop to it will be everywhere and ruining the view of the countryside from many roads. Making a mess of the countryside in order to advertise God rather than, say, Boggins Carpets, seems to me to be worse, not better.

And although I do try to be tolerant of everyone's beliefs, I think that to have someone running the country who's guided by God and not judgement is not a good thing.

Ah yes, but Tony Blair's convinced that his version of religious faith is the correct one.

And so is everyone who has a religious faith. I expect Saddam Hussain would have called himself a religious man. So it's not a question of fact, just of opinion.

The thing that really infuriates me is when people equate lack of religion with lack of moral values. Why these things should be deemed to be always linked, I don't know. I'm not religious: I do have strong moral values. Why shouldn't there be millions more like me?

Actually, if we didn't have a God to forgive us our trespasses, surely we might think a bit harder before making some of the crasser decisions of our lives: and if we could only stop quarrelling about who believes what then we might actually manage to be nicer to each other. I think that, in the twenty-first century, it's time we grew up and took some responsibililty, and stopped either blaming God or thanking God for things.

Religion eh? Hey, perhaps it'll be politics next, to offend any readers remaining unoffended so far.

I promise you it won't be.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The End of Autumn

As I've previously mentioned, here in Yorkshire it's been the most beautiful autumn in the whole history of the world ever. During the last week or so the weather's been very Novemberish: with cold, damp and little helpings of fog brought in specially from the National Fog Store which, as anyone who crosses the Pennines on the motorway will know, is to be found all around Junction 22 of the M62.

But today the sun came out and Gledhow Woods still looked like this:

Here's the house where some of my friends live in Headingley, with a few leaves still clinging to the trees:

But it's all heading one way. Winter. And this huge tree at Dagmar in Headingley knows it.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Falling Over

I'm quite good at falling over. I do it relatively often, because I don't have a very good sense of balance, and don't usually hurt myself.

I may already have told you that in my first year of university I fell down a flight of stone steps, rounded the corner at the bottom, rolled down the next flight, rounded that corner and fell down the final flight, to find myself surrounded by an amazed crowd of students all longing to call the ambulance on their mobiles - except, of course, that mobile phones hadn't been invented yet and even Anneka Rice's huge carphone-thingy was not yet born.

Anyway, the students were quite surprised when I got up sheepishly and walked away.

I think it's because I have rather slow reactions. By the time I've gone "Oh no, I'm falli - - " I've already been stopped from falling by landing on something.

Today I was working at Dewsbury District Hospital and trying to find my way back to my car. It's a sea of similar-looking buildings, not very well labelled, and if you add the fact that it was pitch dark and very wet so I didn't want to get my map of it out of my bag, you can see why I had a bit of a problem.

"Oh look, there's A and E," I thought to myself, "I'm sure I passed that on the way in - - " and then, just outside it, I skidded on a patch of mud and ended up sitting on the ground in a most undignified posture.

The trouble with falling over is you feel such a twit. Luckily I wasn't really hurt at all, just rather surprised. But if I'd've broken an ankle, say, I still think I would have tried to get to my car and drive home rather than have the humiliation of staggering in there and saying "I fell over just outside."

I went back to Leeds and visited the Communist in hospital, with much of my clothing covered in mud. Nobody remarked upon it, and he was very pleased to see me, and looking very well. I returned home muddied but unbowed.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Looking Forward to Looking Forward

"I'm glad you've come now," said the Sister today. "Come and look at him."

The Communist has not had a good week: on Monday last week he choked whilst eating and was taken off all food and drink for about a week. He was labelled Nil by Mouth, put on a drip and given nothing to eat. They tried, and failed, twice, to put a feeding tube up his nose and into his stomach.

Finally, they did a swallowing test, which he passed, and they started giving him food again yesterday.

And when we arrived today he was sitting bolt upright in a wheelchair, finishing a good lunch with much enjoyment.

They have taken him off many of the drugs he's been on, with the result that his head has cleared: his speech is perfectly clear again, and his hands aren't shaking.

Today he was as if coming out of a daze. He remembers some events of the past few months quite clearly and some bits not at all. And some things which he thinks are memories just aren't.

"It was difficult driving the car with my wooden leg before I came into hospital," he said.

"Dad, you never had a wooden leg. Really, you didn't."

"Yes, I did. It was very hard to work the accelerator. I didn't have a proper foot."

"Dad, you came into hospital with two legs, and now you've got one and a half. But you never had a wooden one. It was a drug-induced dream."

He took quite some convincing but eventually conceded that I might just be right.

"You're looking so much better," I said, trying not to cry.

"Oh yes," he said. "I'm looking forward to looking forward."

Monday, November 26, 2007

Cracking Up

There's an exhibition at the Tate Modern at the moment called Shibboleth 2007, by Doris Salcedo.

It's a big crack in the floor, stretching the length of the Turbine Hall, wider in some places than others.

I confess I didn't know what a Shibboleth was, or is, and it is "a custom, phrase or use of language that acts as a test of belonging to a certain social group or class." It is, by definition, used to exclude those unsuitable to join this group.

So if I went round saying things are "wicked" I'd be trying to prove I was young, cool and trendy but both my use of the word "wicked" and my use of the word "trendy" would prove I'm not really suitable to be the kind of person who IS young and cool. If the word cool's still cool. Which it probably isn't. Groovy, baby.

But this crack in the floor is actually supposed to be more about racism and colonialism: here's what it says in the blurb:

In breaking open the floor of the museum, Salcedo is exposing a fracture in modernity itself. Her work encourages us to confront uncomfortable truths about our history and about ourselves with absolute candidness, and without self-deception.

Now I'm not sure about what I think about all that, except that I wish people wouldn't write things in quite that way, because they make me want to take the piss, and then I feel bad for not seeing the artwork before I start muttering darkly about "pretentious, moi?"

What concerns me more is today's full-page article in The Times about how people keep falling down the crack and injuring themselves. Fifteen, so far, and rising. The crack is, in some places, "large enough for a toddler to fall into". The museum's thinking they might have to Do Something About It.

Dennis Ahern, the Tate's head of safety and security, says

"Such options could include, but are not limited to, higher levels of control of entry, barrier or demarcation lines, Perspex bridging over certain sections or other physical interventions which may become required."

Which makes me worry about the future of our species. And also, to ponder our past.

If we go to visit a very large hall with a very big crack in the middle: and we know that the purpose of visiting the very large hall is the very big crack in the middle, and we still fall into the very large crack, or even permit our toddler to fall in the very large crack - - well, what kind of a useless species are we? How on earth did we ever manage to get as far as making a bit of flint into an axe? How have we possibly survived for this long?

How on Earth did we come to be put in charge of the future of the planet? I mean, would you trust us to do anything right?

But hey - - perhaps I've been encouraged to confront uncomfortable truths about our history and about ourselves with absolute candidness, and without self-deception, see above. You decide.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The DIY Bee Gees Kit

Thanks to Silverback for reminding me of another excellent Kenny Everett sketch.

The Bee Gees were everywhere during the 1980s and 90s and they didn't generally like being mocked - they once walked out of the Clive Anderson show on television in 1996 when he kept sniping at them. I once heard one of them (can't remember which) interviewed on the radio going absolutely apoplectic when their works were described as "Meaningless Songs in Very High Voices".

So here is the DIY Bee Gees Kit: enjoy!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

My Herd of Reindeer

My husband went to Helsinki and all I got was this lousy reindeer.

He went on a business trip last week, for a couple of days. This made Emily hopping mad with envy as Finland is her desired destination of choice: but, as Stephen pointed out, almost all the time he was there it was dark, and for the short time it wasn't dark he was in meetings, so he didn't see any of it at all really.

The people were very friendly, however, and, on learning that Emily was interested in Finland one of the people at the meeting went and bought her two books and a Finnish calendar, which was really kind.

I did ask Stephen if he could bring me back a little herd of reindeer, which I've always thought are very appealing animals, and I thought they'd look good on the lawn ("Or on the grill," suggested Silverback helpfully). I know that they migrate, but hey! my mother's got a lawn too, at the bottom of our garden, so they could have gone from one lawn to the next. I'm sure they would have liked it.

"Great migration this year, Rudolf, don't you think? Really quick."
"You bet. No wolves either. Great."

But no, sadly all Stephen could find on the reindeer front was this stuffed one at the airport, which had been given the undignified job of modelling reindeerskin rugs.

There were plenty of Moomin products too (hurrah for Moomins) and some Sibelius cds. Finland has lots of forests and lakes, and an excellent education system, and in the summer it gets warm. Well, warmish.

I'd like to visit one day. In the summer. In the light.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Best Sketch Ever

In the grey, conspicuous-consumption-ridden Eighties, there didn't seem to me to be many shining lights, but one of the few bright ones was Kenny Everett.

Born Maurice Cole - a name which suited him not at all - in 1944, he'd be sixty-three now, which I find hard to take in as I'll always think of him as a skinny, athletic young man full of inspired, off-the-wall ideas. Sadly, he died of AIDS, age fifty.

For years I remembered a sketch with Kenny Everett and the wonderful Billy Connolly as the funniest sketch I have ever seen on television. When I saw it for the first time its simple absurdity appealed to me so much that I laughed until I had to be rescued from complete hysteria with a cup of sweet tea. I have remembered the sketch ever since but never been able to find it.

I saw a television programme about Kenny Everett recently and, of course, Billy Connolly was interviewed.

"There was a sketch which haunts me," he said - - and suddenly, there it was. And here it is: or at least the script of it, though the genius of the two men involved was what lifted it to Heaven, of course.

Kenny Everett is in a white suburban hallway of a house. He turns to go into one of the rooms when the doorbell rings, rather loud and long: BRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!

Kenny Everett opens the door. Outside is Billy Connolly. It is dark outside.

Billy Connolly: Yes?

Kenny Everett: What do you mean, yes?

Billy Connolly: Well, what do you want?

Kenny Everett: What do you mean, what do I want? What do you want?

Billy Connolly: I don't want anything. It's you who opened the door.

Kenny Everett: I know that. But what are you doing there?

Billy Connolly: (crossly) Listen, pal, what do you want? I haven't got all day.

Kenny Everett: I don't want anything.

Billy Connolly: Well why don't you clear off then before I call a constable? Go on, on your bike!

(Kenny Everett, looking puzzled, goes in and shuts the front door behind him. He thinks for a second, then thoughtfully opens it again. Billy Connolly is still there.)

Billy Connolly: (losing all patience) Yes?

I feel rather proud that this sketch, which has haunted me for so many years, has haunted the great Billy Connolly too.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

At the University of Upnorth

I work all over the North of England helping in the teaching of Communication Skills to students of medicine, nursing, physiotherapy, dentistry - -

At the University of Upnorth yesterday, some nursing students were practising their counselling skills on me. I was playing a patient with mental health problems (insert your own cheap gag here, go on, I don't mind.)

They were being taught, extremely well, by one of their tutors, many of the different building blocks of a successful counselling session. Introducing yourself to the patient. Body language - how to sit, how to make appropriate eye contact, how to keep still and not fidget. How to develop empathy with the patient. How to find out the crucial issues by asking a mixture of open questions and closed questions.

(In case you don't know, an open question can have any answer: "How are you feeling today?" A closed question has one answer: "Where does it hurt?" "My arm.")

How to summarise what the patient has told them. How to show you're listening. Finally, how to finish the session and get the patient to leave the room.

Aaah - - all that's common sense, say many people, why do they need to be taught that?

Well, any kind of contact with some of the more old-fashioned of our medical professionals will show why, all too clearly. You can probably all think of an example where a tactless doctor or nurse has said something really stupid to you. If they practise with a Simulated Patient, as we're called - someone acting the role of a patient - then, if they do say something daft, it's a safe learning environment where it doesn't matter. Even in that setting, once they realise what they've said it makes them determined never to do it again.

Yesterday's student nurses were all excellent - and, because of this, they understood that actually it's jolly difficult to get it right, especially with a distressed patient.

When asked for feedback they all said "Ohhhh - - it was SO difficult!" and had to be reassured, complete with lots of evidence, that they had done very well.

Sometimes you get a student who thinks there's nothing to it, or one who just has naturally poor interpersonal skills. I don't know how they still slip through into training, but a few do. Teaching them communication skills - the very basics of what to say and do - should at least ensure that they reach a basic level of ability.

Some of them, though, can, though only in their late teens or early twenties, put all the elements together seamlessly and add a big dollop of empathy and compassion. Sometimes they're so brilliant it's breathtaking.

Those are the ones we'll want to see when we're ill.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Back to Blackpool

I've been to Blackpool a few times now. It's not the kind of place I'd normally choose as a holiday destination, but actually I rather like its tacky cheerfulness.

Last night Emily and Gareth took me there to see Amy Winehouse. When I first heard her single Back to Black, from the album of the same name, I loved it and thought it sounds like a classic, a song that's been around for ever: she has one of those voices that is somehow full of aeons of experience.

Of course, much recently publicity has been about how she's a Very Bad Girl, with a "car-crash lifestyle" - - this is tabloid-speak for "does a lot of drugs and booze". Her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil is currently in jail. At her recent Birmingham concert she was drunk and the fans booed.

Last night, arriving at the venue, which was the Empress Ballroom, part of Blackpool's Winter Gardens, I realised with horror what I should have worked out before: there are no seats in this venue.

Now, to cut a long story short, I had a very bad DVT (blood clot) in my leg in 1984 and the result is that, although I can walk for miles, I can't stand still for very long at all without getting terrible cramp.

The Empress Ballroom, which epitomises the phrase "faded grandeur", was crowded and hot and I just couldn't bear it so I thought I'd go for a walk and just come back to see part of Amy's set - I could see no alternative.

Off I went into the drizzle of a near-deserted Blackpool and of course I was heading for the sea, because I love any sea. It was pitch dark: the tide was completely in: the sea was calm and small waves lapped underneath the North Pier. A speaker nearby played ferociously jolly seaside-type music and the hanging fairy lights only emphasised the darkness and Novemberness.

I felt much better, and after wandering up and down the front, seeing hardly anyone, from eight o'clock until ten, I walked back to the Winter Gardens and went in to find everyone wandering round buying drinks. I assumed it was the interval, but no! Amy had not yet been on stage, so I was just in time.

I sat on the stairs on the way into the ballroom and from there could see Amy and her band pretty well, through the grill covering the bar. A huge bouncer lumbered over to me.

"Oy, lady, would you like to move off them stairs?"

Having found the only place in the whole room where I could both sit down and see, there was no way that I was going to move. I decided to take his question as a question, rather than as a command.

"Having thought about it, no, I wouldn't like to move, thank you," I replied politely.

He gave me a confused stare and bothered me no further. I stayed put.

Amy apologised for her lateness and was drunk enough not to be able to speak totally coherently. "This is the first song I wrote - I think it's the last song I finished - I should just stop keeping speaking my thoughts as I think of them --"

And then she sang, with that effortless, troubled voice. She is, as my friend Sonia said the other day, the "real deal". She can sing like that because it's how she is.

I thought she seemed very vulnerable, not just the Very Naughty Girl that the press have painted her, and I wanted to take her home and give her hot chocolate and biscuits.

I hope she'll sort herself out soon. If she does, though, I suspect it won't help her singing. If "placid people paint pale pictures" then I prefer Van Gogh.

If she doesn't manage it, we won't hear much more of her: she'll be too unreliable for the money-men to take a chance on. Or she'll be dead.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Back to Black

Emily and Gareth are taking me to see Amy Winehouse in Blackpool tomorrow. Given all the recent publicity - fans booing her in Birmingham etc - I'm a bit nervous about it. And then I had to tell my mother.

"Oh no! I can't think of anything worse!" was her cheery reply. That's because, never having heard Amy sing, my mother just thinks of her as a Very Naughty Girl and a Bad Thing.

Sadly, my mother's response to anything new is now "Oh, no!"

If I have to travel anywhere, for work or for pleasure, her immediate response is "Oh, no. All that way! Oh, what a shame. Can't you tell them you can't do it?"

"But, Mum, I want to go."

"Yes, but there's rain forecast. You don't want to be driving in rain." (For "rain" read "snow" or "sunshine" or "any other kind of weather").

I find it heartbreakingly sad, for until she had a stroke at the age of 68 - sixteen years ago - my mother was a go-ahead adventurer in many ways: though, admittedly, she never thought that I should be one too, because she wanted me to be safe from all harm.

I know she can't help it: but knowing that doesn't help me to deal with it. Whenever I tell her anything that I'm about to do - which, let's face it, this week involves a trip to Blackpool, and then later a roleplay in Steeton, near Keighley, so it's hardly a one-woman trek to the North Pole - the reaction is "Oh, no!" or something very like it.

I think I've written about it before. The reason I've come back to it is because it's so hard to deal with. The Communist always used to react more positively - he was always over-protective too, but at least he could accept that I might have a nice time when I got there.

My mother, on the other hand, now divides any new experience into tiny segments each meriting their own gasp of horror. Amy Winehouse - gasp! In Blackpool! - it'll be full of chavs with knives! Across the M62 - - aaargh! At the Empress Ballroom - - oh, it'll be too big, too crowded! And you're coming back the same night - - oh no, you can't do that - -

I find it hard to tell her anything now: perhaps it would be kinder not to. But then, she lives next door, I see her several times a day: I'd feel bad if I just went off to Blackpool and didn't tell her.

It's exhausting, it's dispiriting, it's not her fault, and it wears me down. Oh, yes.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

What if Everyone Wanted to Do That?

It's the last refuge of the jobsworth.

"Oh, no, I'm sorry, I can't possibly allow it. You see, what if everyone wanted to do that?"

They can use it on any occasion where a bit of thought and imagination would solve the problem: or when there's something a bit different going on that would require them to engage their brain.

One of the few times where, it seems, everyone does want to do it is when they're five minutes late for check-in at an airport.

"Yes, but can't you delay the plane? It's just me that's late and the traffic in London was terrible."

You see them again and again on such television programmes as Airline. "Who could have anticipated that traffic could be that bad? Oh, please, because it's my grandmother's funeral tomorrow - amazingly, she just happened to live in Ibitha - and I can't possibly miss it."

I feel sorry for the staff who must deal with this many times a day: but airports are now applying this what-if-everyone rule more widely.

I drove Stephen to Leeds-Bradford airport horribly early this morning because he's going on a business trip to Helsinki (as long as he brings me back a couple of reindeer it'll be okay).

Now, because earlier this year two people in a car tried to drive into Glasgow airport with the idea of blowing things up and killing people, Leeds-Bradford Airport has decided that everyone might want to do this, and hence you can no longer drop off passengers anywhere near the entrance. Instead, you have to drive into the car park, leave your passengers to struggle with their luggage, and drive straight out again so you don't get charged for parking.

I can see the airport's point of view. If anyone managed to drive a car straight into Leeds-Bradford's entrance, then the airport would be blamed and the newspaper headlines would be all about why didn't they heed the dreadful warning from the incident at Glasgow?

On the other hand, how long are they going to keep this up for? A year? Five years? Ten? Because - unless they have some information that isn't being made public, that others are planning to try driving a car straight at an airport - they could stop people from dropping passengers off indefinitely. Perhaps only a little victory for terrorists - and "terrorist" isn't a word I use lightly - but a significant one.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Oh, Jerry, don't let's ask for the moon. We have the stars.

I enjoy reading reviews of films and plays on some blogs, such as Siegfried's, so I thought I'd write one.

Now I haven't watched nearly enough films in my life, perhaps because it's quite rare for me to sit down for long enough. I'm not stating this as a positive trait: I think I have acquired an overdose of Work Ethic somewhere along the way.

So I'm quite a long way behind with my movies - over half a century in some cases. People are always saying to me "But you must have seen - - " and no, generally I haven't, though I love films, so it's strange.

This afternoon, determined to have a rest after a very busy week, I sat down and watched Now Voyager. It was made in 1942, so I'm sorry that the review is sixty-five years late, but I've never seen it before, and anyway, I wasn't born when it was made, so there. The title is taken from a poem by the American poet Walt Whitman.

It's about the spinster daughter of a rich Boston family, who is driven to a nervous breakdown by her domineering mother (played by Gladys Cooper, who's excellent).

The unattractive spinster daughter, whose unattractiveness seems mostly to consist of a nasty tweed suit, some glasses, a bit of padding and a bad hair day, meets a psychiatrist and in about ten minutes is transformed into someone slim, glamorous and looking exactly like Bette Davis.

Then she goes on a cruise, acquires some very sparkly frocks and falls in love with a married man.

All the settings are very luxurious and glamorous and I expect this particularly appealed to a grey, war-torn Britain.

Splendid acting from young Bette, but my main problem was that everywhere she went she took an orchestra with her, playing what seemed to my ear to be yards of mushy violins. The composer, Max Steiner, won an Oscar so clearly not everyone who saw it agreed with me - but there was no natural sound in the background anywhere, just music all the way through, and I just wanted it to stop, frankly.

Two things showed how long ago it was made: the Romantic Hero's Romantic Gesture was always to light two cigarettes, one for him and one for her. He wouldn't be doing that nowadays, oh no, not unless the plot involved a horrible death from lung cancer.

Nor would the heroine say, as Bette did, "Let's go to a Bohemian restaurant and be very gay and you can make love to me there." Two changed-language-use in one sentence.

But I thought the acting had stood the test of time: Bette Davis was more interesting than the men, I thought. They were clean-cut clones and I found it hard to tell one from the other, but perhaps that's because I've never been interested in men with clean-cut charm.

It must have been pretty cutting-edge at the time and now, of course, it isn't - - but I enjoyed it, nevertheless. I must watch more films.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Moving Out

Since Emily started at York University in October, she's been commuting every day from Leeds, which has been a bit of a pain because of all the extra time it takes.

She and Gareth are buying a house in York - small but perfectly formed, and it will ensure they're broke for a while - but nevertheless a much better idea than renting.

And yesterday - after about a month's delay of all the things that you get when you're buying a house - they finally got the keys. We were in Huddersfield and I went off to do some work in Bradford and Emily caught the train to York.

They stayed in the house overnight with camping gear, because they could, and they'll gradually move in completely.

It seemed strange here last night. Very quiet.

Of course, it's a Good Thing.

And, actually, they're back in Leeds tonight at a meeting, and tonight they're staying here. Tomorrow they'll take some more stuff over to York.

And, of course, it's a Good Thing, as I said. Wouldn't want it any other way.

Look, it's my blog, and I'll cry if I want to.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


I always try to prepare thoroughly, especially when it's something a bit different.

Pedantically I plod my way through it all, trying to make thorough sense of it and prepare for all eventualities. Usually it pays off.

Often more spontaneous people laugh at me for not being more "in the moment". But hey, generally, I don't care, that's what I'm like, I'd rather be prepared. Sometimes even I think I overdo it a bit - on a personality test I took recently I scored 100% for conscientiousness which even I think is a bit worrying.

However, today I was involved in a tryout of something I'd prepared quite hard for - - and I can't tell you what it was, as telling you would be extremely unprofessional. But, after a few moments of confusion, it became clear I'd been given the wrong thing to prepare.

Oh - - pooh. Time to prepare the right thing, rather fast.

On a more cheery note, I heard a joke I liked, on the radio.

Two chickens standing by the side of the road.

"I'm wondering whether or not to cross," says the first one.

"Oh, no, please don't," says the second one, "We'll never hear the end of it."

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Better Again

Here's the Communist this lunchtime. He looks a bit puzzled but he wasn't feeling puzzled - he was feeling better.

I haven't mentioned him for a little while as he's not had a good couple of weeks. Where they amputated his leg has healed well and so they moved him back to his previous ward - which is also a good ward - to recover.

But, at about the time he was moved, something happened and suddenly he couldn't speak clearly any more. The ward move was a bit of a problem as the staff in the new ward didn't all realise that this speech problem was new, so I had to jump up and down saying he was dictating a letter to Jeff in America (hello Jeff, if you're reading this: I hope you've received it) just a few days before, and now suddenly he was mumbling and all consonants had disappeared.

He was also having problems swallowing and his hands seemed much more shaky. "Surely he must have had another stroke?" I asked. They did a brain scan: it showed nothing, but sometimes little strokes leave no trace anyway. The Communist was completely aware of everything that was being said to him, but was having problems forming the words of reply. In general, I could understand him and adopted my usual tactful approach when I couldn't:

"Can't understand a word you're saying, Dad. Say it again, properly!" And, sometimes he did manage to, and he didn't seem too distressed by this speech problem: but I found it heartbreaking.

Then there were a few days when I had that flu-type thing and couldn't visit in case I killed off the whole ward: and actually, I found it a relief, because I found this mumbling version of the Communist so upsetting.

Then I went to see him with my mother today.

"Oh, hello," he said, in his normal voice, "you've come."

They are making him drink thickened fluids as he keeps choking on thin ones - again, a probable side-effect of a small stroke. But he was having none of it.

"Give me a drink of water," he said, "I've had enough of this thick stuff."

So, rather naughtily, I did, holding the cup carefully and making him concentrate on every mouthful.

"If you drown, Dad, I'll be in trouble, so watch it," I said.

"Oh, they're talking nonsense," he said, "there's nothing wrong with my swallowing. When do you think I can come home? Pass me the Daily Worker."

It's not the Daily Worker any more, of course. The Communist newspaper, which he has always read every day, changed its name to the Morning Star years ago, but he's always called it the Daily Worker.

There's life in the old dog yet.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Soccer on a Hot Summer Beach

It's the coldest day of the autumn, so far, so I'm off out of it, thank you, back into a hot summer's day in the early Seventies.

The hotel where we stayed - still stay - where Stephen and I had our honeymoon - where Emily and Gareth are soon to be married - is Park Hotel, on the top of North Cliff in Tenby.

There's a steep path down the cliff and in those days the hotel used to provide coffee in the mornings and tea in the afternoons on the beach, by the simple means of sending down a couple of their strongest waiters carrying a massive tray of huge pots and jugs and cups. So you could get really frozen in the sea, secure in the knowledge that soon a hot cup of tea would arrive to unfreeze you.

It was primarily a family hotel in those days and so all across the beach would be sprawled parents with their children, reclining in deckchairs or building sandcastles in a proper-seaside-holiday kind of a way.

There were always lots of waiters and other young men working for the hotel and when it was their break they would wander down to the beach, one or two at a time, so as not to look too intimidating.

"Fancy a game of soccer?" one would remark casually to one of the recumbent Dads.

"Oh, all right then," the Dad would reply sleepily and clamber to his feet, recruiting a few more Dads to play as he did so.

And thus it would begin. The Park Hotel Rangers versus the Dads.

What the Dads never realised until they were no longer in a position to back out was this:

The Park Hotel team consisted of about twenty young, fit, sun-bronzed men who had dedicated every spare minute of their summer to perfecting their Beach Soccer skills. Inspired by England's success in the 1966 World Cup, they had practised so much that they had skills that George Best would have envied. Also, and very pertinently, they knew which way the sun went round and what time the tide would come in and where the wind was coming from.

So there'd be the twenty young Adonises versus the Dads. The Dads' team was comprised of eight or so white, flabby men in their thirties and forties, all wearing last year's swimming trunks which no longer quite fitted. In colour the Dads were white with red bits, or sometimes red with white bits. They had all played football once and were sure they could recapture the glories of their youth, even though for some reason they always seemed now to be playing with the sun in their eyes and the wind in their faces and seawater up to their ankles.

The Communist, of course, was one of the Dads. So was my mother, who snuck in round the edges pretending to be a bloke and then stayed in the game when they were too polite to mention it. She was by far the best of the Dads and occasionally was co-opted onto the Park Hotel team.

It was a game of two halves: before and after the afternoon tea. One half tended to be longer than the other because everything stopped when the tea arrived. And often the game stopped when the tide came in and there was no beach left and the waves lapped against the bottom of the cliff.

But if the tide was going out, then the game ended when the Park Hotel Rangers had a score which made them happy: usually about thirty-seven nil. Or, if the Dads were lucky, when the Rangers had to go and change into black trousers and white shirts to serve dinner.

Those were the days.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Child Neglect

I haven't written in detail here about the work I do to help to train doctors, nurses and other medical professionals in Communication Skills, but it's always interesting and I think it's vital.

One of the projects I'm involved in, which is some inter-professional education workshops for final year and postgraduate health and social care students, has just been awarded the Highly Commended category nomination at the British Educational Research Association Awards 2007 and I'm dead chuffed - I didn't devise these workshops, but I do help to deliver them, and they always seem to be rated very highly by the students.

This week, in an interesting sidestep from this work, I have been asked to be involved in a conference on Child Neglect. This is a subject which very much interests me since I used to teach in a school where finding a child who wasn't being neglected was a rare and beautiful thing.

So I've been reading up on it a bit. Now - as is, you would think, obvious - children who are neglected in early childhood find it very hard to catch up later and, indeed, if they're not spoken to enough they can miss the "window" for learning speech and never really learn to speak properly at all.

The popularity of all the various television programmes about parenting skills - such as Supernanny - surely demonstrates that many parents - even those who generally cope well - are keen to learn new techniques that will help them to bring up their children.

And at the bottom of the heap are those parents who have been so badly parented themselves that they haven't the foggiest clue what to do.

So here's a suggestion that to me seems so obvious that I can't see why it doesn't happen.

Why don't we teach parenting skills in schools? To everyone - because there's often some kind of daft idea that clever middle-class children don't need it. Any kind of parenting skills classes are reserved for low-ability kids (or whatever politically correct name we choose to give them).

No, everyone should do a basic course on child development and childcare. The brainier kids would pick it up quickly: others might take longer: everyone should do it. Nobody should leave school without passing a basic test in it.

Ah, but there's limited time in schools, and there are other subjects more important, aren't there, otherwise we'd be doing it, wouldn't we?

Like what? What on earth could be more important?

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Sob Story Factor

The X-Factor is the kind of undemanding Saturday-evening show to watch when you've got a cold, as I have, and as I may have mentioned to you a couple of times. (Okay, I'm trying to pretend I haven't watched it every other Saturday too, so just humour me).

Two things I don't like about it - and there are others, but I'll leave them be for the moment:

The first one is in the early stages of the competition where they sing really, really badly, and get rejected, and then go "Oh, please, please, Simon, it's what I've always wanted."
Well, so what? I may have always wanted to be an astronaut or a ballet dancer or a brain surgeon but if I haven't got any of the required skills, I can't be one. And if you can't sing, you can't be a singer. That's it. Live with it.

The second thing is the sob stories. Once they get into the final twelve, every other contestant seems to come up with a there-were-twenty-of-us-living-in-a-paper-bag-in-the-middle-of-the-road type story.

And I don't want to know. I don't want to be feeling guilty because I prefer someone who didn't find the X-Factor application form amongst her deceased father's possessions, or who wasn't abandoned as a baby, or who doesn't want to win the X-Factor to help their family out of poverty.

I want to be judging them on their performance. That's the place for the strong emotions too: I love singers who really take you with them into the feelings of the song.

This year, the best of them by far is a young Welsh singer called Rhydian. He looks a bit like David Bowie in his Life on Mars phase and came over as rather over-confident at first - - but, of course, a lot of that could have been in the editing; and subsequent shows have shown he's a lot to be confident about, because his voice and performance skills are stunning.

He hasn't, as far as I know, told us anything horrific about his past. I hope he wins.


Being ill (coughs heartrendingly) does at least give me the chance to catch up on some long-recorded television and I've just been watching freediving champion Tanya Streeter diving with the fishermen of a remote Indonesian tribe who live in houses on wooden supports above the water. They dive every day into the clear, warm water and live entirely by fishing.

They dive deeply without any kind of aids - no aqualungs, masks, goggles, wetsuits or flippers. It was fantastic to watch even the children diving down to a depth of more than twelve metres without any problem.

I was watching it thinking hey, gi's a job, I could do that. Well, a bit, anyway - I've always been able to hold my breath for a long time and I've always been rather good at swimming underwater. I've always rather put it down to Russian peasant ancestry = broad back = good lung capacity.

A theory which I fear is entirely flawed, as Tanya Streeter is about an inch wide and twelve feet long, damn her, and this island tribe were all built amongst much the same lines.

But still, I thought, I'd rather be one of these than, say, a Bedouin, because living next to the water - especially such warm, blue water - and swimming every day is something that really appeals to me.

Aaah but - - then I thought a bit about what I'd seen. All the people who were freediving with Tanya Streeter were of one kind - the male kind.

And when she said "I was diving with the children" what she actually meant was "I was diving with the boys".

In fact, we didn't see one female person in the water in the whole programme apart from Tanya. And this is clearly not because men are better divers, because look, there's Tanya, swimming gracefully deep, deep in the water.

So where were all the women? At home, making the tea, looking after the children - and, of course, in that society, it makes perfect sense - this isn't a "Bring Women's Lib to Indonesian Tribes" piece. Everyone has a clearly-defined role and the men are the hunters, even though they're hunting under the sea.

Interesting, though, that Tanya never thought to mention it. Yes, as an honoured outsider, she had a great time diving with the fishermen: but if she was actually a member of the tribe, she wouldn't be diving at all.

Friday, November 09, 2007

On Not Blessing You

In his comment on my previous post, Silverback wrote the word "bless" and mentioned that I'm now in credit for my next sneeze.

Generally, when you sneeze in this country, the response is "Bless you". Occasionally people say "Gesundheit" which is German for "Good Health".

I've always thought that it was something to do with an old legend that the soul leaves the body when you sneeze, so the "Bless you" sends it straight back in again. And, according to the ever-accurate Wikipedia, there is another legend that your heart stops when you sneeze, and in several parts of the world you say something to do with "good health" to start it up again.

Wikipedia also points out that saying "Bless you" when someone sneezes is a "socially obligated response". And it's correct on this one - it's very rare that you sneeze in company and someone doesn't say it.

But I don't say it. And the reason I don't say it is because my mother doesn't say it and my father doesn't say it. It's not just that I wasn't brought up to say it - it's that I was brought up not to say it.

The Communist, in particular, thought it was something to do with both superstition and religion, neither of which he wants any truck with: and I think my mother, in her quieter, less forceful way, agrees with him on this one.

I couldn't start saying "Bless you" now when someone sneezes - it feels too uncomfortable and unusual, too alien to me. So, if you sneeze and you're surprised when I don't say it, that's why: and I apologise, but I just can't. And if someone says it when I sneeze, I feel rather touched - as if I've been given a little present.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Bit of a Cold

My grandmother on my mother's side, who lived with us here for over thirty years, never got colds. No matter how many cold germs were whizzing round in the atmosphere, no matter how ill everyone else was, no matter how ferocious their coughing and sneezing, she just never succumbed.

"I don't get colds," she would announce cheerily, and with a slight air of superiority, as if it was just a question of being British and stoical and the germs would drop dead before they got you. The germs, indeed, never got her: she just quietly faded out at the age of ninety-three, without ever demonstrating her coughs or sneezes to the world.

I had what seemed like hundreds of colds when I was a child: I remember standing in the freezing cold playground, knee-deep in snow, penguins pecking at my ankles, polar bears lurking behind the trees, unable to breathe through my nose and feeling dreadfully ill.

For my mother believed in sending me to school no matter what. Though perhaps it was because I was very much the Girl who Cried Wolf - - I would fake anything from a broken leg to double pneumonia most mornings in the hope of getting out of going. Nobody could understand why: I was good at the subjects and had lots of friends - - Yes, maybe. But I had more interesting things to do at home, building dens and such. School was dull.

Back to the colds. Everyone I know seems to have had a cold recently, including everyone else in this house. Even the snake's been sneezing a bit (oh, all right then, he hasn't).

I've been fending them all off. Now I'm a grown-up (sort of) I am bringing my grandmother's genes into play and refusing all these colds.

But at last, I think one of them has got me. Woke this morning with a very sore throat. Just had a rather scary paroxysm of coughing, when for about a minute I felt I really couldn't breathe. Finding it hard to speak - - - oh, yes, yes, okay, you can stop laughing right now. This was my big bid for sympathy and you've just ruined it.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Magic Roundabouts

"They use them to attract the metal boxes known as cars," said one of the Little Green Men, hovering over Yorkshire in his spacecraft. "but, as yet, we're not sure why. It happens twice a day though - thousands of cars from all over the region all rush to the big circles. So many of them that they can't all get there. They all stand, one behind the other, outwards from the circles for an hour or so and finally they all go off somewhere. We can't see the point to it at all."

I've explored the delights of two of these roundabouts today, and I have to say, I can't see the point either.

Firstly I had the delights of Leeds's finest - the imaginatively-titled Armley Gyratory. It's always on the news. Accidents, floods, fires - - always at the Armley Gyratory. Probably there's some sort of natural law that when a place is already deeply unpleasant it draws more unpleasantness unto it. Huge great thing, lots of exits with lanes all narrower than the road you're on, masses of traffic - and no room for error, oh no, one wrong move and you're halfway to Manchester when you wanted to be in Bradford, or vice versa.

And then, en route to Halifax, I encountered the roundabout known as Ainley Top. I've always thought it sounds rather romantic, with an atmosphere of moorland mists and Brontes.

"Cathy! Cathy! Ah'll meet thee on Ainley Top at midneet."

If she'd tried it, she'd've been crushed beneath a truck. You come off the M62 and, going round clockwise, you can aim for Rochdale, Halifax or Huddersfield with a side order of Brighouse if you wish. And, whichever lane you're in, it's the wrong one. There's a helpful notice telling you that 4,983 people have been killed there since about last Thursday but don't, whatever you do, stop to read it or there'll be a man coming to change the sign to 4,984 tomorrow.

I got to Halifax and did some interesting work with some nurses about Breaking Bad News.

Then I had to encounter the joys of Ainley Top and the Armley Gyratory all over again. In reverse order. In the rush hour. In the dark.

Some bits of Yorkshire are God's Own County, all right. And some bits aren't.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Feu de Bon

They were burning some old furniture last night at my friends' bonfire and it made some very interesting shapes:
We didn't have fireworks, just some good people and a bit of food and a few drinks. But we're always very fortunate at such bonfires because, if Ninon is there, she plays music, and it's delightful:
As we stood there in the dark, faces red and hot, backs cold, we mused that this is what it must always have been like for people for thousands and thousands of years. Red faces and cold backs must have been the norm in winter - if you were fortunate enough to have a fire - and the only time you got all-round warmth was in summer.

Even when I was a child - - not THAT long ago, honestly - I remember rolling and twisting newspaper to make kindling for my grandparents' fire in their hearth.

But now we expect central heating almost everywhere. Warm faces and warm backs. How quickly we adjust to luxury.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Minor Miracles

Even minor miracles are very cheering: they don't happen often. Here are two that have happened to me.

One day a few years ago I decided to give the spare room a very thorough spring clean - as well as doing the obvious things like dusting and hoovering, I cleaned everything from the lampshades to the skirting-board to the windows and tidied all the vasty heaps of Junk so it was as near to immaculate as is ever possible in this house.

In the evening a long-lost friend knocked on the door out of the blue, having just found herself in the area. Could she by any chance stay with us for the night? I showed her to the immaculate spare room, trying by my expression to convey "Oh yes, it always looks like this."

Today's little miracle involved my car, which needed its MOT doing, and I needed a garage to do it, and to service it. I rang a local garage which I've never used before.

"I'll collect it on Monday morning," he said. And he did.
"I'll ring you if it needs any major work," he said.

He didn't ring me, so obviously I was expecting to have to ring him later on, and him to say he hadn't looked at it yet, and me to ring him again, and him to say "ohhhhh, well, I'm afraid that'll be four new tyres and a new engine - - "
In fact, he brought it back at four o'clock, having serviced it and done its MOT.
"Nothing major at all," he said.

With trembling hands I wrote him a cheque for Really Not Very Much.
Hurrah for minor miracles.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Second Life

Second Life "provides an online society within a 3D world, where users can explore, build, socialize and participate in their own economy".

It's a website. In case you haven't heard of it, you create a character - called an avatar - to enter into this world. And there you can do all sorts of things - get a job, meet people, build a house, buy and sell things, start a business- - You can, for example, build a butterfly and then write code that gets it to follow you around.

It's very clever and it has given Man the chance to have a second go at building paradise.

And a second chance to mess it all up.

Once you've built your butterfly you can then sell it to other residents for the unit of currency which is Linden dollars. And then you can trade the Linden dollars for real dollars. Now why didn't that come as a surprise to me?

Millions of users are in Second Life all the time. I heard an article on the radio the other day about it. Someone had gone to the supermarket in Second Life as an undercover investigator and found that, behind a secret wall in the supermarket, you can buy cute little Second Life girl children. For sex.

On the radio they interviewed a woman who had started a Christian newspaper in Second Life. The interviewer asked her whether she knew about such dark sides of the website.
"Oh yes," she said, "because a friend of mine is a policewoman in Second Life and is investigating it."

The idea behind Second Life is clever, but I am sure that there are millions of people out there who are addicted to it: whose First Life is going completely to the wall whilst they're busy with the virtual one.

The internet is truly wonderful, but open to all sorts of strange things, and I think that Second Life is - or is becoming - one of them.

I haven't given you the link to it - you can find it quite easily, should you wish - but I looked at their introduction. And it gives me the creeps.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

A Right Good Do

I was at the Barley Hall today in York, for Martin and Rebecca's wedding. It's a beautiful mediaeval building:

Lots of mediaeval music and, unlike at many weddings, the readings were interesting, the sentiments heartfelt, the speeches witty. Martin and Rebecca looked very happy and John did an ace job as Best Man.

I don't mind admitting that I find anything resembling a Formal Do really difficult: that song "You will always find me in the kitchen at parties" could have been written for me. I never know what to wear and in general I'm happier with a job to do - I have ducked out of several weddings, feeling guilty and dreadful, but totally unable to face the required socialising. I have spent several others hiding. "But, Daphne, you must be in the photographs" once made me disappear for most of the rest of the day.

So thanks to those of you who made it firstly possible, and secondly enjoyable, for me today - I think you know who you are.

And many congratulations to Martin and Rebecca - they are both lovely and I hope they'll have a long and happy life together.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Some Bricks Almost Buried in the Ground Being Used As Paving Stones

Yes, this blog does exactly what it says on the tin.

Here are some bricks almost buried in the ground being used as paving stones.

Either you'll love them, as I did, or you'll think I'm bonkers, as my companion on this walk did.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Not Visiting

The hospital car park that is nearest to the Comunist's ward is a multi-storey with three floors.

I had been working in Dewsbury with some student nurses and doctors this morning, and planned to call in to see the Communist on my way back.

I thought that the multi-storey would be pretty empty as it was right at the beginning of visiting time for this ward, and indeed earlier than visiting time for most wards.

Wrong! It was completely full, with many cars driving round and round trying to find a space. I have my suspicions that, because it's in town, although it's just supposed to be for hospital visitors, people use it to park whilst they're shopping. It costs £2 for up to two hours, and then jumps to £6 for more than two hours. But you can do quite a lot of shopping in two hours.

The only empty spaces were the ones saved for people visiting Intensive Care, and I think it's right that there are spaces reserved for that.

I tried the only other car park nearby, which, unsurprisingly, was full too. I needed to get back to the office, and by now I'd been driving round and round for forty minutes, getting more and more frustrated. Any other car park would take me half an hour to walk to the hospital, and another half an hour back again. I gave up and came home, feeling very upset. My mother said, "It's okay - you don't need to visit today. Syd's going this afternoon."
Maybe not - but I wanted to. I wanted to see him. My poor mother never quite understands this - she can just see that I'm really busy and that it takes a lot of time to visit.

Two things: at £2 a time the cost really mounts up - - I probably go six days a week, which amounts to quite a lot of money since the beginning of June. Okay, I can afford it - thought I've certainly noticed it - but I bet many people can't. Shouldn't it be possible to get a weekly ticket?

The lack of parking spaces is a real problem. Perhaps a system where you could collect something from the hospital to prove you are a genuine visitor?

Ah, yes, Daphne, but you should travel by public transport, of course. And I would do - - except it's about three quarters of an hour each way, once you've queued for buses, plus another twenty minutes to walk across town. That's more than two hours before you've even started the visit. The whole visiting thing takes about two hours every day, even going by car. Over a long period of time, it's really exhausting.

Taxi? - - About seven quid each way. Fourteen quid a day. Okay for a week, perhaps - too much for five months.

I know it's not really anyone's fault - - it's The System. I don't think there's anyone in charge of making it easier for visitors to visit - if there is, they're not doing a very good job of it. And actually, having visitors is surely one of the things that speeds a patient's recovery.

I'll try again tomorrow.