Thursday, January 31, 2008

Credit Me with This - - -

A couple of years ago, I came across a test of introversion/extroversion which put you on a scale from one to twenty.

One was the man who lives in a cave near the top of a mountain in Tibet and hasn't spoken to anyone for fifteen years.

Twenty was the bloke who knocked on your door yesterday afternoon and asked if he could come in, meet all your relatives and do a tap dance in your living-room to show them all.

We did the test. Stephen, who is known as the Strong Silent Type - or, as Emily would put it "My Dad never speaks, don't worry about it" - scored eight. He may be quiet and fairly introverted but he's not particularly shy.

I scored three.

"Well, that's ridiculous," I hear you say. "Didn't you used to review the Sunday papers on Radio Leeds? Haven't you spoken to large groups of people? Weren't you a secondary-school teacher? What about all this acting you do for medical students?"

Yes, well. All those Daphnes weren't me - they were Daphne-with-strong-opinions or Daphne-who-can-spell or Daphne-who-knows-about-Communication-Skills.

As a child though, when I had to be ME, I found some things impossible.

It didn't help that, when the bloke above knocked on your door and announced that he was coming in to show you all his tap dance, my mother was two steps behind him and keen to join in.

For she is a sociable extrovert. Even the Communist is pretty extrovert, given the right circumstances.

They spent my childhood trying to do two things, especially when we were on holiday.

The first one was to Show Me Off and the second one was to find me a Little Friend to Play With.

So, on holiday in Italy, when I was five and had learned some Italian, it would be,

"Daphne speaks Italian. Daphne, speak Italian to the nice lady."

Daphne was now totally unable to say anything at all. She just stood there and waited for it to be over. If there had been a handy cliff, she would have jumped and thought it a merciful relief.

The Communist was still doing this to me in restaurants right until he was taken into hospital last June. How stupid to still feel the same at my age! But I did, and although I'm incredibly sad that he can't go to restaurants any more, I am so grateful that this no longer happens.

Of course, my loving parents meant no harm by it. They meant no harm by their continual attempts to get me to go to play with other children, instead of letting me read my book. They meant no harm by trying to get me to go up on stage at the pantomime. They meant no harm by making me go to many, many children's parties. More recently, they meant no harm by pulling me physically up onto the dance floor. In fact, they meant only good: they just didn't realise - still don't, really - that I'm not like them.

I've made use of these feelings of fear and impossibility to help with my roleplay for medical professionals and with teaching Communication Skills. I'm a good reader of body language. I tend to have a pretty good idea of who will get on with whom and who won't, and who'll be happy doing something and who won't.

Emily's an introvert too and I've just asked her if I've ever pushed her - or tried to push her - into any social situation that she didn't want to be in.

"Of course not," she said.

Yes, there are many things that I don't know about, but I think I know how to make people feel comfortable, and how to avoid making them feel uncomfortable. You can trust me on this, at least.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

It Could be You

"It Could be You!" went the slogan for the National Lottery.

Actually, it could be me.

In 1988 a former teacher, known only as Mrs. A, was walking in daylight in the park when the strangely-named Iorworth Hoare dragged her into the bushes and sexually assaulted her.

It was a brutal assault but Mrs A received only £5,000 damages from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board. It was not worth her while suing Iorworth Hoare as he was by then a prisoner, serving a life sentence for the attack on Mrs. A and six other women.

However, in 2004 Iorworth Hoare was let out of prison on day release and won seven million pounds.

Mrs A tried to sue him but failed, as it was now sixteen years after the attack and the time limit by law is six years. She tried the High Court and the Court of Appeal but finally had to pay him £100,000 in legal fees because of this six-year time bar.

Today, in what the media keep referring to as a Historic Ruling, five law lords overturned the six-year bar, and gave courts discretion to extend the period to permit older claims. So Mrs A. now has the right to sue Iorworth Hoare, who was released on parole and now lives near Newcastle-upon-Tyne in a £700,000 house.

There are two things which interest me in this case.

The first one is that whoever thought of the six-year time bar was an idiot. Six years is nothing after undergoing a big trauma. I went through an - entirely different - trauma of my own after losing my first baby, going from not being believed by medical professionals when I said that I was in labour, to being neglected so much medically that I was about three days from death when my family finally took things into their own hands and carried me off to see a specialist.

Six years later it still seemed like yesterday. It was only about fifteen years later that it began to seem like the day before yesterday, and I began to think hey, perhaps I should have sued - - that'd show them!

I don't think I ever would have sued - it would have brought it all back to me too vividly. My way of dealing with it all has been doing the medical roleplay I do, to help to train future generations of doctors.

But certainly, if I had wanted to sue, a time limit of six years afterwards would have been far too soon.

The second thing about this case that interests me is this.

The park where Mrs A was walking, in daylight, was Roundhay Park, which is about a mile from my house. I have walked there, on my own, in daylight, hundreds of times.

So it could have been me.

I heard a rather pompous solicitor on the Jeremy Vine show on Radio Two arguing that, although today's judgement might seem the correct one, it might not set a good legal precedent.

Yes, well, perhaps. Meanwhile I'm going to cheer loudly for the persistent Mrs A. I hope she gets the lot.

Snow in Cardiff

In the Olden Days, when we used to have snow in January, one day I woke to find Cardiff covered in thick, fluffy, silent snow of the kind that many under-twenties can barely remember, or have only seen when abroad.

I was working as a temp for a company called Manpower, doing all sorts of jobs before starting a teacher-training course. My current job was working for a firm of architects, which sounded very grand.

I was the tea-lady. I loved it.

I loved it because everyone loves the tea-lady. As I pushed my tea-trolley round, laden with Welsh Cakes and and Bara Brith and Bath Buns and Eccles Cakes and Bakewell Tart and other fine British goodies, I was greeted by cheery smiles from all.

I wasn't in the usual mould of tea-ladies, being only twenty-two. so I was a bit of a curiosity. I had a good memory so would remember who liked the Bath Buns and who liked the Bara Brith and I would make sure that I had people's favourites saved for them.

Because I was a temp, if I didn't work, then I didn't get paid. So on the day of the snow I looked out of the window and decided that cycling, my usual method of transport, was not an option. I decided to walk.

The snow was deep - at least six inches deep. In some places there were drifts that were much, much deeper.

I put on my bright yellow plastic boots, which had "Bombo Boots" written on them in blue - - oh yes, how strange, the things you remember - and set off through the streets of Cardiff.

There were no cars and very few people. What I remember is the white everywhere, and the silence.

I reached the architects' offices and the caretaker let me in. Everything was dark and silent. Nobody except me had put in an appearance, it seemed. Oh well, I was there, so Manpower would have to pay me.

I made my way up to the little room where I made the tea and coffee, just out of habit really. And there I found one lone young architect, trying to make the water boiler work. I tried to explain and realised that he couldn't understand me. So I asked him where he was from.

"France. I am French."

I was pleased - for me, it was a good answer, for I spoke French, not entirely fluently, but well enough. He asked me if all tea-ladies in Cardiff spoke French and I assured him that they did.

I made him a cup of coffee and he told me, in French, about where he came from, which was Provence. Outside the window thick flakes of snow were falling. He told me about Provence in the summer, and how hot and dry it would get, and how all the colours were orange and brown and yellow. He paused for a moment. "Et tous les toits sont rouges." Then, in English:
"And all the roofs are red."

I looked at him, and there were tears in his eyes, and there were tears in mine too, and I don't think we really knew why.

We pretended it hadn't happened. We put our coats and boots on, walked out into the snow, and went our separate ways.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Reclaiming the Night

I think it was being made to go to bed at eight o'clock for years, just as Bewitched was starting. It was my favourite programme at the time but I hardly ever got to watch it because eight o'clock was Bedtime. My parents disapproved of Bewitched anyway, especially the Communist, because it was about Capitalist Americans, even if one of them was a witch.

I remember thinking at the time, look, Mum and Dad, I am your firstborn child and I know that you profess to adore me - - and yet you apparently have no idea quite how much watching this programme means to me. Or how upsetting it is for me to be going up the stairs just as the theme music comes on, until it stops abruptly as you change channels.

Oh, okay, as childhood suffering goes it's not that high up the scale of anguish, but I've always remembered it.

Ever since then, I've been trying to reclaim the night.

"Aren't nights long?" asked a bewildered Stephen a few months ago, when a cold had kept him awake quite a bit in the night. For his perception of sleep is that you put your head on the pillow at about, say, ten o'clock, and then the alarm clock goes off and it's time to get up.

At ten o'clock I'm just waking up. Left to my own devices I wouldn't go to bed until about two: but since I usually have to get up for work in the morning I generally compromise at sometime just before one.

Then I wake up at least once, sometimes twice in the night. Instantly, I'm wide awake, and I'm downstairs checking my email, or hanging up the washing. Then, back to bed - - straight back to sleep - - wake up a couple of hours later, check that the snake and the geckos are okay, put out my clothes for the morning, read a bit - - straight back to sleep.

Then the alarm clock goes off, and I get up and have some coffee, let the cat out, feed the cat, let the cat in again, feed the birds, check my emails - - and by then I'm kind of awake.

People tend to be surprised by how little I sleep. Visitors to the house quickly realise that all they have to do is open their eyes in the middle of the night and I'm instantly awake.

And yet, in general, it's not that I have difficulty getting to sleep - it's just that I tend to wake up raring to get on with things. I hate wasting the night.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Yes or No?

I've always found the Harehills district of Leeds really depressing: it's one of the first things I remember thinking about Leeds, when I was very, very small. It mostly consists of row upon row of Victorian brick terraces and in those days they always seemed to be covered in thick smog from the coal fires. Where I live, a bit further out in the suburbs - and I know I'm lucky - there are lots of trees, and there are hardly any in Harehills, and not much grass either.

St James's Hospital, where the Communist is currently residing, is in Harehills and I hate going there - it has lots of memories for me, many of them bad. The only good ones are the medical roleplay I've done there: even then, I always hated the buildings where I was working.

The whole of Leeds seems to be a big building site at the moment, with lots of new buildings going up, and St James's Hospital is no exception: here's a new wing of it:

I can't work out whether I quite like it or whether I think it's hideous. I suppose I don't like the squareness but I quite like the green (I like green) and the green looks quite cheery against the blue sky (I like blue too) and I quite like the blue and cream oblongs underneath: they have a slightly thirties look to them and I like that. At least they've made a bit of an effort to stop it looking like the concrete lumps of a lot of the more recent buildings.

But it's so BIG. And it's so SQUARE. What do you think?

Of course it goes without saying that this isn't where the elderly patients are housed: they're in the totally hideous vileness of Beckett Wing. One good thing about this photograph was that I had to have my back to Beckett Wing in order to take it.

Saturday, January 26, 2008


So, what's the most important part of a nurse's job then?

Is it:

a) Looking after the patients


b) Listening out for the bell that lets them know that there are visitors outside the ward, and then walking down the corridor to press the button that will let the waiting visitors into the ward?

Did you guess a)? Yes, so did all the nurses.

Of course, nurses these days aren't busy, what with the NHS being so overstaffed and all (if you're reading this from overseas I am using a linguistic device known as irony here and we Brits know that nobody from Abroad understands it. Hey, now I'm on to two examples in one paragraph.)

So, after that little digression, whenever the nurses aren't busy, which isn't often, or ever really, do they think "Hey, I can hear a bell ringing in the distance! And it's been ringing for twenty minutes! I'd better answer it!"? - - er, no, they don't.

Because the bell rings so much that they habitually screen it out of their hearing.

I expect that the patients learn to do this too. Eventually. After a few weeks of wondering why they don't seem to get many visitors.

Friday, January 25, 2008

An Ordinary Day Out

I don't usually like events that are coated with lots of expectation of Importance and Having a Good Time.

I like an ordinary day out. Let's go for a walk: let's go to the Dales: let's go for a pub lunch: let's go to the seaside. Oh yes, good idea, let's go! And often, it's fantastic, and the more relaxed for not having had that burden of expectation placed upon it.

All my life - well, as long as I can remember - I've enjoyed such days, and I've always taken my camera, since I had my first camera when I was about five or six.

So, lots of photos, lots of happy memories.

But sometimes an ordinary day out can turn, retrospectively, into a more important event than it seemed at the time.

Here's the Communist, having a good time walking at Bolton Abbey on February 18th, 2007, almost a year ago.

Whenever you pointed a camera at him when he was out, he always managed to look as though he owned the place. And, being a Communist, I suppose he would have done, given half a chance: though you would have had a share in it too.

This was the Communist's last walk at Bolton Abbey, a place he's loved all his life. We may perhaps be able to take him back there for a visit sometime, but he won't be able to walk because he had his right leg amputated in October.

At the moment he's living in a nursing home, though is currently back in St James's Hospital because he fainted: they think he's anaemic. Of course, if they send him back to the nursing home, where the food is good, I think he'll stand a better chance of overcoming anaemia than he might eating hospital food.

So I look at this photo, and it's good to remember how much he enjoyed that day. But it makes me sad too. And I'm thinking hey, one day very, very many of my photos are going to have that effect on me.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Peas in Winter

As soon as I saw them I knew I had to have them. I couldn't believe it. I've never seen them in the deep dark depths of winter before.

Peas. In pods. From Italy. And these were none of your mangetout peas - though I like those too. These were proper, honest-to-goodness fresh peas: though probably a slightly different variety from the ones grown here as their pods were longer.

I love them. They taste of summer sunshine. But I'd never cook them - oh no, they've got to be raw.

So I bought a whole bagful and scoffed the lot whilst watching Coronation Street. They were fantastic. It was like a small moment of July.

As sins go, it would seem, on the face of it, pretty minor. Though, when I start to think about it - and I chose not to, I admit - how did they get here from Italy? Did they roll? No, I think not - they flew here in an aeroplane, making a small yet significant contribution to global warming as they did so.

So it's me that's wrecking the planet, me and my winter peas. Sorry, everyone.

And yet, I think I have a bit of an excuse, because the number of air miles that I've flown in a plane myself is really rather smaller than average.

To Italy and back three times as a child. To Germany once as an adult. To Amsterdam three times - well, perhaps four. And that's it. I must be one of the UK's Least Flown Persons.

So I hope the planet will forgive me a few peas.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Come Back Dorcas

Dorcas. Now there's a name you don't hear every day. Or at all, really, these days, though in Victorian times it was quite common.

I was reminded of it whilst watching the BBC's current adaptation of Lark Rise to Candleford, Flora Thompson's excellent account of nineteenth-century rural life. It's a fascinating book, though a bit lacking in plot: Girl from Tiny Hamlet Moves to Little Town and is Happy There is about it. But it's a fascinating book and the rather chocolate-boxy screen version doesn't really show how good it is.

One of the main characters in it is called Dorcas, and this got me thinking about other names that have gone. I once had a cat called Dinah, which I thought was a good name for a cat, and a good revival of a Victorian name. Many people, however, thought its name was Diana and thought I'd named it after the princess of the same name, which annoyed me rather.

The names of First World War soldiers are creeping back. Harry. Ted. Perhaps even Arthur. But Percy, I suspect, will take a while longer. A few Second World War names are beginning to appear: I keep coming across small children called Ruby.

It's strange how a simple name conjures up a whole era, and a whole social class. Fiona. Posh. Rupert. Posh. Daphne - - er - - yes, well, now you come to mention it - - Posh. And it is my real name, chosen only because my mother liked it. And I don't think I'm Posh at all. But it has taken me a while to work out that the name comes laden with expectations.

There are some names - and I won't quote them - which do for Common what Rupert does for Posh. Often, they are names plucked from a television show. I was surprised to find, in the television series Foyle's War, that Foyle's sidekick is called Samantha. I had never heard that name - or the name Darrin either, usually Darren with an e in the UK - until the American series Bewitched, which as a child I absolutely loved, came to Britain in the 1960s, bringing those names with it.

I tend to like traditional boys' names of the Frank, Robert, Michael, David, Stephen, John, Ian kind - - actually, this has turned out to be a list of some of my favourite friends and relatives, in the order that I met them. I think, with the best will in the world, boys with unusual names tend to have a hard time of it so I wouldn't call any son of mine Crispian, for example.

Girls don't tend to have the same problem if they have unusual names, but even so, I tend to prefer the traditional ones with their sense of history.

I quite like the name Dorcas: it's unusual, and doesn't - to me - have any negative connotations. I'm rather hoping it will come back.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


I was at a Complementary Therapy Centre last week whilst Emily was seeing an osteopath for her ongoing painful back problems. The pain's caused by being too long and slim, I mention with only a tiny hint of blind envy.

I've always been deeply suspicious of all kinds of alternative and complementary therapies. Probably partly because the Communist was also the Pharmacist, and has only ever believed in conventional medicine, and succeeded in indoctrinating me with this belief.

And partly, also, because I've never had any personal experience of using these therapies, or hence of having any success with them.

This is, I think, because I've always enjoyed relatively good health and, on the couple of occasions when I have been ill, it's been with something really serious and for some reason nobody thought to try complementary remedies.

"It's a pulmonary embolism! Pass the aromatherapy!"

"The baby's breech! Quick, fetch the Indian Head Massage!"

Oh, it's easy to mock. The centre offers counselling too, and hence this notice amused me:

It's all very calm and pleasant - so unnervingly calm, in fact, that I wanted to play a bit of Death Metal and make a few calls on my mobile.

There are lots of important-looking certificates on the wall - but my problem with all of this is that I don't know what, say, a certificate in Reiki means. What do you have to study to get it? What do you have to achieve? Just reading their website sets my Bullshit Monitor on red alert and makes my mind, which I like to think I keep pretty open, snap firmly shut.

Reiki seems to consist of the therapist putting their hands on the patient's body in different positions for an hour and a half. If it works, then, fine - - but I want to know how it works, and my guess it it's because the patient believes it's going to. So that's me stuffed, then, because I'm just not good at believing in things.

If someone's qualified as a doctor, then, fine - they've studied for five years at a recognised medical school. It's just pass or fail and the reason for this is that nobody wants to see a doctor with a Third when they could see a doctor with a First.

But with many of these complementary therapies, we have no clue what they've had to do to gain their posh certificates.

I'm aware that it's partly my failing: the instructions on the Reiki site say "The recipient simply lies on the couch and relaxes".

Whaddya mean SIMPLY? I couldn't do that, not in a million years. I'd lie on the couch, every muscle tensed, waiting for it to be over. The same goes for massage, as I think I've told you before. With me it'd be that's enough now, get OFF, leave me ALONE.

Homoeopathy? No, my mind won't buy into that one, either. Let's get an ingredient, dilute it until it's not there, and then use it as a treatment. It just doesn't make sense to me. And, as with Reiki, I am convinced it works because of the placebo effect - it works because you think it will.

But I could be wrong! And I'd like to be wrong. I'd like to believe, but I just don't seem able to.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Gone Back Again

I think this might be a bit of a “sharp-intake-of-breath” - type post and it may shock or offend some of you.

I usually think I'm very hard to shock, but an email I received recently did shock me – and, actually, offended me too. Though the people who sent it would be astonished to know that.

Some of you already know that in 1984 our first baby was born prematurely and lived for three weeks.

Slightly over a year ago, an ex-colleague of mine also gave birth to a premature baby, which had died in the womb at only slightly over half the usual gestation period of forty weeks.

Now she and her husband are planning to run workshops for other parents or relatives of dead babies, the aim being “story capture” - in other words – though rather trendily and, to me, annoyingly phrased - to write down everyone's story. They sent me an email to tell me this, and to ask me to publicise it.

I understand that this might help some people, though it would not be the kind of thing I'd be interested in.

What I really didn't like was that the email was signed by both parents - - and also by the dead baby. In other words – say the parents were called Peter and Alison, which they're not, and say the baby was called Edward, which he wasn't - the email was from “Peter, Alison and Edward”.

And the address to reply to was the equivalent of babyedward@hotmail (dot)co(dot)uk

Now, this couple clearly believe that their baby is still with them. But they sent this email to me. And they know that my baby died. And d'you know what, I don't believe that my baby's still with me: I believe he's dead, because that's what I believe. And I don't want other people's “our baby is still with us and yours is still with you” beliefs inflicted on me. No, I don't. No no no no no no no no NO.

In every previous century babies died all the time. The parents frequently didn't bother giving them a name for months, because babies often died before their first birthday anyway.

We've forgotten this. We've gone to the other extreme. We're trying to keep incredibly premature babies alive at all costs – physical damage, brain damage – because nowadays, if we have a baby, we expect him or her to live.

Exactly a hundred and twenty-one years and one month ago, things were different.

Look at the simple dignity of this letter, which starts:

My dear Papa

I am Glad to tell you Mama (h)as got it over, about three o'clock this afternoon. It was a little boy but it is gone back again. Mama is going on as well as you can expect.

The subject of the letter, John's great-grandmother, had eight children. Four grew up. Four went back again. Not unusual for the times.

In the context of those times, and of the religious beliefs of the letter's recipient, I find the letter very touching.

My baby's death has been a great tragedy to me and it's only recently that it's felt as though it happened the day before yesterday, rather than yesterday.

But I wish that we, as a society, could accept that babies die sometimes. Instead of dwelling on that “he's still with you” and “he's gone to a better place” - type sentiment, I wish that we could accept that people will die – and then, from that knowledge, let's treasure life and look after each other.

Very many thanks to John, who gave me permission to show you his great-grandmother's letter.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Obsessions and a Hawk

We all have our little obsessions and if you read this blog often, you'll know what some of mine are. Frog spawn. The position of the Fair Trade coffee in Sainsbury's. The countryside. The seaside, especially a lovely melancholy estuary with the tide out and some oyster-catchers pecking about. Crashing waves on rocks. Lighthouses (stop it, now). Oh yes, and my little flock of sparrows.

Sparrows have become much rarer in the British Isles and I am on a one-woman crusade to rectify this. I told you recently about how, after a lot of listening, I have mastered the basic Sparrow for "she's putting food on the bird table". I do indeed feed them every day. We have sparrow nest-boxes on the garage wall, and plenty of other nesting sites in the ivy and bushes.

So, over the past few years, my sparrow flock has grown considerably, and I'm delighted.

Though it seems that word has got around.

This morning, over the roof of the house next door, I saw a bird-shape that I didn't immediately recognise, silhouetted against the sky. I know most of the common ones but this one was different and after a moment I thought, "Oh, I know why. It's a bird of prey." Quite a big one too. I was most surprised.

Then I went back to filling in my tax form - sighhhhh - and forgot about it temporarily.

Until this afternoon, when I looked out of the window and there, on the lawn, was a bird I just didn't know: brownish. Large thrush? Nope. I could see it but just didn't know what to make of it.

I saw it was eating something and when I finally realised that it was eating with a plucking motion, I worked out what was going on. Bird of prey, eating a much smaller bird. There are feathers all over the lawn now.

So what bird of prey? A bit small for a stray Bald Eagle or Andean Condor. A bit big for a kestrel, perhaps, and it didn't hover when I first saw it, which kestrels tend to do: they are the ones seen at the side of motorways, hovering like crazy.

Fortunately it stayed put whilst I looked it up and, unsurprisingly, I concluded it was a female sparrowhawk. Eating a sparrow. The clue's in the name.

It was rather exciting to see one just outside the window and I don't begrudge it one of my sparrows. But I'll be warning the rest.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Then Who?

With a mounting sense of apathy I can report a new development in the University of Leeds's "Not Me" campaign. The posters have, as you can see, acquired an extra sticker that says Then Who?

Clearly the campaign is approaching its exciting climax, which had better be good.

Though I'm quietly confident that it won't be.

My big disappointment is with the students.

Of all the posters that I've seen, not one of them has had a witty, rude or obscene-yet-unfunny slogan added to it. What's wrong with students these days?

Friday, January 18, 2008

Scruffiness and Success

When I was a student, in what Ian would call Sepia Days, I had a very likeable friend who was doing a PhD but appeared to be dedicating his research grant to working out how to raise Scruffiness to an art form.

One day he showed me his system for washing clothes. Proudly he directed me to the wardrobe.

"These are the clean clothes," he said, showing me where they lay on the shelves.

There didn't seem to be very many of the clean clothes, I noticed.

Then he pulled out a black bin-liner from the bottom of the wardrobe.

"These are the clothes which are dirty. But not so dirty that I can't wear them again. And I probably will."

He produced another bin-liner.

"These are the clothes which are really dirty. I'll have to wash these. They're too dirty to wear again." He took out a sock and sniffed it. "Yes. Yes, they're definitely too dirty."

From the back of the wardrobe, he produced a third bin-liner.

"And these - - " he said with a dramatic flourish - "These are the ones which are too dirty even to wash. I would show you, but I don't think I should open this bin-liner. I'm going to throw them away. When I get round to it."

I'm not in touch with him these days, but I wonder if he's still as scruffy as ever, now he's so high up in Lloyds Insurance.

Probably not.


Thursday, January 17, 2008

Leslie's Compo

Actress Leslie Ash has been awarded five million pounds in compensation after suffering paralysis after contracting a form of the hospital superbug MRSA.

Yesterday it was reported it was £500,000 pounds but no, it's five million.

The case isn't straightforward. Well, I don't think so.

Firstly, she fell off her bed whilst having sex with her husband, Lee Chapman, and suffered a punctured lung and two broken ribs.

There was a history of what might best be described as rumours of domestic violence: though Leslie Ash has always defended her husband against any such accusations, it must be said. Though, of course, I know dozens of people who have suffered similar injuries whilst having sex, and I expect you do too.

Whilst being treated for the punctured lung and two broken ribs ("the kind of sex-related injury that we see every day" as nobody was heard to remark) she contracted a bug similar to MRSA.

Okay, the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital have agreed the five million pounds for the "shortcomings in her care".

But it won't serve as a test case for the value of the compensation, oh no. If your beloved relative has caught a hospital bug, and you're seeing the cheque in your mind now, forget it.

The payout was only so large because Leslie Ash - most famous for Men Behaving Badly, and also known for Where the Heart Is and Merseybeat - was a very high earner. So they've paid her to compensate for loss of both past and future earnings.

But two things strike me.

Firstly, an article I read in the Daily Mail (yes, I know, I'm sorry - I was at the osteopath with Emily and it was in the waiting room) said that, because she now walks with a stick, she can no longer play the "attractive young blonde" roles which made her famous.

Now listen. There's a reason she can't play those roles any more, and it's because she's forty-seven. And although she might be a youthful, well-preserved forty-seven, there are plenty of pretty, talented and much younger actresses for casting directors to choose from.

I work with actors and I know. Women's casting, in chronological order, goes like this:

Pretty Young Things
Young Mother
Mother of Teenagers (and, by the way, these are generally cast from thirty-something women)
Career Women (again, usually thirty-somethings)



Little Old Lady (Curly white hair like a sheep. Under five feet two. Taller ones can forget it).

And there's another relevant point I'd like to make, too. In an attempt to keep her youthful looks, she had collagen implants in her lips a few years ago. As you'll probably remember, it all went horribly wrong and her new, strange-looking "trout pout" ended up plastered all over the newspapers.

So, as a matter of fact, she's been awarded five million pounds compensation at a time when I suspect she would no longer be offered many leading roles. Or, perhaps, any roles in television at all. If you look at many drama series you will find well-known older actresses in tiny roles.

So, yes, Leslie Ash has been through a hard time and I feel sorry for her, to a certain extent. And certainly I think it's time that hospitals started taking cleanliness and superbugs very seriously indeed.

But FIVE MILLION POUNDS? Her glamorous-actress life may be behind her, but, d'you know, I think it might well have been anyway. Giving her the benefit of the doubt, I'd give her the half-million that it was rumoured to be - and I still think that's quite a lot.

The other four and a half million could buy a lot of hospital equipment.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A Happy Tale of Childhood

One of Emily's friends at university, Kim, comes from a background which, by her own admission, leaves something to be desired.

She was regaling Emily with tales of her childhood. Emily's favourite was this.

When I was a small baby my Dad took me to the dog-racing track. The dog he'd betted on won, and he was so excited he forgot all about me and went off drinking with his mates, leaving me behind.

Luckily a girl was there who used to babysit me and she recognised me and took me home.

My Dad came home three days later.

"Have you forgotten anything?" asked my Mum.

"Don't think so," said Dad, rather confused.

"Anything baby-shaped?" asked Mum.

"Oh no!" said Dad. "I've left our Kimberley at the dog-racing track!"

My Amazing Rescue

What a coincidence! Just a couple of days after writing about the heroic exploits of Victorian heroine Grace Darling, I was involved in a daring rescue of my own.

There I was in the pet shop, buying some crickets for the geckos' tea. Actually I was buying three boxes as they're cheaper that way - gecko breakfast, lunch and dinner for the next couple of weeks.

And then, as I came up the stairs from the reptile department, carrying my three boxes which were all going jump jump jump and chirp chirp chirp, I saw a grey shape out of the corner of my eye, moving behind a pile of boxes.

All my life I've been scared of grey animal shapes that you can't quite see, in case they happened to be wolves. However, putting the boxes of crickets down, and with no thought for my own safety, I moved carefully forward.

Now I could see it. Bit small for a wolf. It was a Netherland Dwarf rabbit, one of those that's very cute, all fluff and not much ears. It looked just like the big picture here.

Luckily rabbit-handling is one of my (limited range of) skills - rabbits take one look at me and sense that I spent half my childhood looking after rabbits. I mesmerised it with my "I might just be a fox, so keep still" look and then picked it up. It sensed that I was In Charge and knew better than to wriggle.

The staff of the shop seemed very pleased to have it back, and swiftly returned it to the very pen it had just jumped out of. Oh well.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


So there I was in a cafe at the University of Leeds, eating my baked potato with cheese and salad, and a man came past my table and - with rather more force than was necessary, I thought - plonked this down on the table in front of me.

I peered at it. "NOT ME" it said on both sides, with no other information of any kind.

It wasn't entirely a surprise to me since the whole of the University is suddenly covered in such things. There are long, thin yellow plastic banners with "NOT ME" written on them, twined amongst railings.

There's a huge plastic poster hovering above the very pond which featured on this blog t'other day

Everywhere there are big yellow paper posters, all bearing the same message.

What's it all about? Well, they're not telling us. Or not yet, anyway.

Of course I searched for the campaign on t'interclacker and all I could find was lots of other people trying to find out too, plus a few comments and suggestions:

I nicked one of the posters and when they asked who had stolen it, I said "NOT ME".

Could it be part of a campaign for the collective denial of responsibility?

I hope it's something more interesting than the usual marketing campaign - I remember there was one years ago that went "Tell Sid if you see him" for ages before they told us what it was all about. And, since I remember the slogan, such marketing clearly works.

I'm back at Leeds University again soon. I'll let you know if I find anything out. And if you have any suggestions, please let me know.

Monday, January 14, 2008

A Red and White Striped Lighthouse

In the far-off summer of 2005, before I started writing this blog, I went on holiday to Seahouses, in Northumberland.

From there regular boat trips run to the nearby Farne Islands - there are grey seals, puffins and huge colonies of other seabirds. We enjoyed the first trip so much that we did a slightly different trip again a few days later, this time landing on the island of Inner Farne.

There are many small islands making up the Farne Islands, and the area is very dangerous for shipping. Here's a photo I took as our boat made its way between two of the islands:

There are several lighthouses in the area. And I love lighthouses. There's always something very comforting about a light in the darkness: and then add to that the romance of the sea, the waves crashing around the base of the lighthouse -- wonderful. - - Yes, yes, phallic symbolism too, I know, I know, you can stop giggling right now.

The most famous lighthouse nearby is the Longstone Lighthouse, and here's the photo I took of it on a calm summer day:

That lighthouse is, of course, mostly famous for one woman: Grace Darling.

Grace Darling lived at the Longstone Lighthouse in the 1830s with her father William, who was the lighthouse-keeper. (The BBC article I've linked to, above, has an illustration of the lighthouse on Inner Farne. There is indeed a lighthouse on Inner Farne, but it's a different one. The Longstone Lighthouse is this stripy one, which is further out to sea.)

On 6 September 1838, there was a huge storm and the ship SS Forfarshire went down on some rocks, three-quarters of a mile from the Longstone Lighthouse. Nine survivors were stranded there. Grace Darling and her father set off in a rowing boat to rescue them.

The boat that we were on travelled past the rock where the ship went down and then went on to the Longstone Lighthouse, to show us the journey that Grace and her father made.

And, even on a calm summer's day, it seemed nearly impossible. There are so many rocks, and currents amongst the rocks, and three-quarters of a mile is quite a way to row in any kind of a current.

Grace and her father did the journey in a terrible storm, there and back. Twice. They collected some of the shipwrecked sailors, took them to the lighthouse, then went back for the rest: there were nine in all. They all had to stay on the lighthouse for two days until the storm abated.

When word got round, there was a media frenzy of the kind that we don't really think used to happen in Victorian times.

Her name probably helped: Grace Darling is a much better heroine-name than, say, Bertha Higginbottom. And she was young, and female, and attractive. Portrait-painters queued up and her image - using the new technology of the time - was plastered on everything from pottery to tea-caddies. Over-written accounts abounded, suggesting that she had heard the cries of the stranded seamen (from inside a lighthouse, in a storm) and set off to rescue them.

She died of tuberculosis four years later, thus ensuring her status as Glamorous Dead Heroine.

But none of it should take away from what Grace and her father achieved that night. It was amazing. In spite of all the hype, she's my heroine.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Working at the Weekend

This hasn't been a very restful weekend.

I spent yesterday trying to get all the information needed to send it to my accountant to fill in my tax return.

Yes, I could have done it in September. Or even in April. But I didn't. I'd like to say it was because I was too busy - and, yes, I was busy - but, let's face it, it's because when the choice comes down to:

Compile Information For Tax Return


Almost Anything Else

then I know which wins, every time. It's the sort of job that makes cleaning the oven sound very attractive.

But I don't have enough of a devil-may-care enough personality to say oh, sod it, I'll pay the fine and do it after the deadline. So what I typically do - every year - is allow myself just enough time to do it, and then do it in a rush, and end up paying too much tax.

And after spending much of yesterday rummaging through the filing cabinet, it was the actors' agency (that I work for)'s monthly meeting this afternoon: a good meeting, but it took me all morning to prepare for it, as it usually does.

And in amongst it all my cousin and his family arrived for lunch - which luckily Emily and Gareth bought and prepared - and their daughter Helaina (who, you may recall, is one of the Women's Own Children of Courage this year, hurrah) tried on her bridesmaid's dress for Emily and Gareth's wedding, and it fitted. Good.

They had lunch at my parents' house because our house was full of actors.

The meeting went well, but lasted from two o'clock until well after five o'clock.

And then this evening I've been learning a script for a role I'm playing for an exam for nurses, tomorrow morning. Then the rest of the day I'll be back in the office, catching up on the minutes of the meeting and suchlike.

When I look at this, all written down, I think I really should do less. The trouble is, I enjoy all the work I do - and I know I'm very lucky in this.

But then I think hey, I must take care of myself, because if I don't then everything will go pear-shaped. All my life I've just assumed that if there's a few hours' gap in the day then another job can be fitted into it.

I blame the school I went to, where work, not leisure, was most definitely the aim.

I know that's wrong: there has to be a balance. I must do better in getting the balance right.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Strangeness of Universities

Here's the hideous concrete part of the University of Leeds, looking better than it has any right to look, early in the morning.

I hated those buildings when I was a student there and I still hate them now. As for the lake, it's the watery equivalent of concrete - it's chemically treated and nothing lives in it. I suppose someone thought it would soften the look of the hideous concrete - but when I pass it, I just feel cheated. It's like a reminder of a real lake, without being one.

They're funny places, universities, with their own strange way of doing things.

I was asked the other day why their grading system for degrees goes First, Two One, Two Two and then Third.

Well, whatever the rational explanation is, I think the real explanation is "to make them feel elitist and special." And to make anyone who didn't go to university feel excluded.

They like to have their own particular use of language, too. Now what is a "collection"? Well, it's an end-of-term exam that doesn't count towards your degree, if you happen - as Emily does - to be a student at the University of York.

And to go with the strange language and strange ways, universities tend to attract some strange people, too. When I was at Leeds, for example, there was a woman who never wore shoes. I remember being fascinated by seeing her blue, cut and bleeding feet make their way across the campus one cold winter's day.

But the strangest of all were the Macintosh Twins (I have changed their surname, just in case).

They were two middle-aged identical-twin women who attended the first-year lectures in English and also in Philosophy, every year, though legend had it that they had actually graduated, one from Leeds, one from elsewhere, years before.

One always wore a green tweed suit: the other an identical purple suit. They argued a lot, in little twittering voices, and always seemed to be carrying black bin-liners full of clothes.

In the lectures, they scribbled all the way through. I sat behind them, nosily, once, to try to see what they were writing and it might just have been shorthand, but I don't think so - it just looked like scribble.

Throughout the three years I was there I saw them most weeks, always dressed in the same way.

Apparently they owned a large house in Headingley which was very run-down and the council kept trying to make them look after it. In fact, that was the last I heard of them, some years later: an article in the Yorkshire Evening Post about their house.

I've often wondered what became of them, and why they behaved as they did, and what they thought.

Strange places, universities.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Ideas, Concerns and Expectations

These days, student doctors are being taught to make their consultations more "patient-centred". This should mean that, unlike the Olden Days where many of them simply ploughed through a checklist of symptoms - or, in some cases, didn't - they actually listen to what the patient has to say.

The trouble is, if you ask "what's brought you to the doctor today?" - type questions, you run the risk of the patient actually telling you what's bothering them. And it may not be something that's easy to talk about, such as a sprained ankle. It may be embarrassing or - even scarier for some doctors - it may be emotional.

We all tend to run away when we're scared and doctors - by their own admission, if some I was talking to earlier in the week are a representative sample - tend to run away to the Land of Jargon. They speak in a strange language that only fellow doctors can understand. They feel safe there.

"Do you suffer from hypertension? Is there any familial incidence of this disorder? Have you had any previous MIs?"

Sometimes they don't do the jargon: they do Doctorspeak. This has language such as "I think there is a low probability that this bruising could have been caused by a disruptive sibling". It's English, but not as we know it.

The more emotionally demanding that a consultation gets, the more likely they are to retreat into jargon or Doctorspeak.

Not all of them, of course, oh no. Some doctors - and some student doctors too - have superb empathy and are able to cope with just about anything.

They are taught to seek out the patient's ideas, concerns and expectations. The more able ones do this subtly, so that, to the patient, it just seems like a friendly chat.

The weaker ones - if they are keen to learn - can be taught some techniques to show empathy, even if they're never going to be brilliant at it.

"I know just how you feel" is never going to be any use, but "That must have been terrible for you" often can be.

I play the roles of patients to help in the training. When I'm playing a patient with any kind of illness or situation that might involve strong emotions, I feel very strongly that I'm fighting the corner of real patients, past or present, with similar problems.

Today, somewhere in the UK, I was playing a woman who had been brought into hospital with a suspected heart attack (the myocardial infarction or MI mentioned above), and was having some tests to see if it had, in fact, been one. She had had a previous heart attack, five years ago.

Unfortunately, the student doctor I was talking to was finding this frightened patient rather difficult to deal with.

"So, have you any ideas about the reason you're here?"

"I'm really worried that it might be another heart attack."

"And do you have any concerns about that?"

It was a bit like talking to the Speaking Clock, but I persisted.

"Well, I'm very scared that I might d- - "

"Did you say that you're already on medicine for your hypercholesterolaemia?"

But then the next student was brilliant: caring and compassionate and understanding. The difference in abilities between students of the same age, and the same level of training, can be stunning.

Thursday, January 10, 2008


Some things need to be wrapped up.

Birthday presents, for example, often do.

If you were to buy, say, a pound of minced beef - or even a kilogram - you might want it wrapped up, as it might be difficult to carry otherwise.

So what about bananas? I'd say that the good thing about bananas is that they come pre-wrapped. You can pick up a banana and put it in just about any bag and, as long as you don't squash it, when you want to eat it several hours later there it will be, in peak condition.

Nothing difficult about bananas, then.

But I went to Tescos and tried to buy some of this perfect food, and the only ones they had were labelled Organic.

Okay, I've no objection to organic, free-range bananas, allowed to grow in natural sunlight, fed upon natural banana food and permitted to wander at will along sun-kissed beaches.

Now then, most people who are seeking out organic bananas would be the kind of worthy people who once drove a Citroen 2CV - yes, yes, I know, mine was red - and would like to save the planet during their lifetime, and who put their newspaper in the green bin and their grass cuttings on the compost heap.

So you'd think - ah, getting to the point now - that the people who sell organic bananas would know better than to present them vacuum-wrapped in Cellophane, wouldn't you?

And, further, out of my bunch of six bananas, three had been squashed to a mushy bananary paste by the wrapping.

It's a tricky business, this saving-the-planet thing. It's taking longer than I hoped.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Faith and Sheila

I take a while to learn to trust people, and I didn't immediately trust Satnav Sheila, so I printed out my route from Google Maps before embarking on this morning's journey to Barnsley. I had followed her advice once before, and she'd correctly guided me around one of the nicer parts of North Leeds, but nevertheless I didn't feel happy without a map.

Because of this innate suspicion, I didn't quite trust the postcode I'd been given for the venue where I was working, either, so I looked on its website. And this instinct proved correct - I'd been given the wrong postcode.

However, armed with the correct postcode, and having learned the tricky switch-the-satnav-on bit, I set off, guided by Sheila's soothing, reassuring and authoritative tones.

She was calm and patient and didn't seem at all rattled by the rush hour traffic. Her directions were perfect - though I have to say I did already know the way to the M1.

All went well until Junction 37, the turnoff for Barnsley.

The signposts at the first roundabout were big and clear.


"Take the fourth exit," said Sheila.

I thought for a moment. There was no way I was going to take a turning labelled Manchester when I was going to Barnsley, and my map said go left, and the signpost said go left.

"Shan't!" I said and turned left.

Sheila thought for a moment but didn't take offence.

"In four hundred yards, turn left," she said in measured tones.

She was now following my route so I was pleased with her. And she sounded quite pleased, too: as I drove through the gates of the venue she said "Destination!" in tones of distinct smugness.

At the end of the day I pressed "Home" and Sheila tried to take me back the way she'd tried to bring me, and this time she was remarkably insistent.

"When it is possible, make a U-turn" she said.

"No way," I said, and carried on, and she reluctantly brought me back the way I'd come, and we got home with no further problems.

I still haven't got to the bottom of the counter-intuitive way that she was trying to take me. However, if I'd had faith, I'm sure it would have worked.

For those of you who are more technical than I am, Sheila is a Navman, and she was a great Christmas present, thank you, Stephen. For anyone who does a lot of driving, especially to new places, I think she'd be invaluable. I can see that, in future times, the idea that we drove about the country whilst trying to glance at the map on the passenger seat from time to time will seem very strange indeed.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Here Isn't The News

I go over to my see my mother and find her distraught.

It's something she's heard on the news - - Gordon Brown. President Bush. Iraq.

The natural disasters she can just about cope with. It's the things politicians do that make her apoplectic with rage.

"Mum, " I say, "there's a way to stop this. Don't watch the news on television. Don't read about it in the paper."

But she can't stop. They've always had newspapers: always The Guardian (loved by my mother: despised by the Communist) and the Morning Star (the Communist paper and the only one that the Communist really likes).

The Communist, of course, despises all other newspapers, such as the Telegraph, the Mail, the Express - - but he reserves his special contempt for The Guardian, because he feels it is trying, but failing.

Although it makes me feel a bit of a fraud as a Communist's daughter, I like The Times. Sorry, but I do: I like its style and its layout and although I don't believe everything I read in it, I like the way it's written.

So of recent years, in our house it's been The Times that has arrived every day. For the past couple of years, we've been buying it under a pre-paid voucher system which should make it cheaper. But, sadly, it confuses the life out of the newsagent and I'm convinced that, some of the time at least, we end up paying for it twice.

So, last weekend, we cancelled it. I will, of course, sneak out and buy it from time to time, but meanwhile I am going to read some more books and watch some films. Don't ask me who's Prime Minister, because I won't know. It's a rather exhilarating feeling.

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Decade Taste Forgot?

The 1970s. Often described as The Decade Taste Forgot.

I think that's rather truer of the 1980s. I always hated all that conspicuous-consumption element of it - all those shoulder pads and big hair and glitz. Even thinking about it makes me want to rush out and buy a Citroen 2CV and some sandals.

I offer this video in evidence of the Lack of Taste, m'lud. Bonnie Tyler, Total Eclipse of the Heart, 1983 - - and I admit, I've always rather liked this song. She sounds a bit like a female Rod Stewart. Okay, as Emily pointed out, when we came across this video on television the other day - probably the first time Emily's heard it - it sounds a bit like two different songs joined together. But I always liked its swelling chorus and I always found it strangely moving.

Then I saw this video. Go on, tell me the plot, if you can. What on earth is going on? There's a kind of public-school theme with some rather dodgy schoolboys. Some American Football players make a fleeting appearance at one point. There's a man with angel wings, releasing a dove. There's a tremendous amount of dry ice and blue light. And through it all, there's Bonnie Tyler, bravely singing on in spite of the fact that she's clearly had a terrible accident whilst drying her hair.

I don't have much nostalgia for the 1980s, but such nostalgia as I do have doesn't seem to be what it used to be. Perhaps, if I close my eyes, I'll still like the song.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Sunday in the Park with Mabel

I walked round Waterloo Lake in Roundhay Park, Leeds, this morning.

Now it's the New Year everyone's out there, wearing their Christmas jumpers and cluttering the place up with their new Christmas bikes and scooters, whizzing past me at breakneck speed on the narrow path round the lake.

I'd make them all get a licence for all this shenanigans in the New Year sunshine. The licence would have to be earned by trudging round the lake a few times in the November drizzle, like I did. Only then would they earn the right to go round the far side of the lake and take that iconic seagulls-on-posts shot that I take about twenty times a year.

"Oh look, seagulls on posts. That looks rather good, I'll take a photo."

In fact, the only time it was rather good was when one of the seagulls was a cormorant, in the very early days of this blog. But I take the photo of the seagulls anyway. The digital age has made me reckless.

And then there was Mabel.

Mabel was a brown-and-white mongrel dog with interestingly large ears. Her owners let her off the lead and she hurtled into the far distance and didn't come back for about half an hour. The whole park rang to her owners' anxious cries.
"Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel!" - oh, you get the idea. It became very tedious very quickly.

Finally, they found her, put her on the lead and walked behind me for about five minutes. Then - to my utter amazement - they let her off the lead again.

I opened my mouth to shout "Nooooo! Don't do it! Are you insane?" but bottled it. Off went Mabel, at top speed, straight back the way we'd all come. Off went her owners, trailing pathetically after her.
"Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel!" - - - on and on and on, until I got back to my car and could shut them out.

It got me thinking about the dog I owned as a child: a poodle called Fluffy. Yes, Fluffy is the kind of name you're going to get if you let a six-year-old girl name a puppy entirely unaided. You, as the child's parents, will be the ones shouting it in the park, so Think On, as they say round here.

On a similar sunny winter's day in 1966, The Communist and my mother were pushing my baby brother Michael in a pram, somewhere in the Lake District.

The photograph was taken by a very young yours truly, with my beloved Instamatic 100.

And there's Fluffy, doing what Fluffy always did, which was to run ahead at the speed of a jet engine.

But, unlike Mabel, Fluffy would always come back. He came back and lived to be sixteen, in fact.

I feel I should also point out that my mother got her value out of that sheepskin coat. She was, in fact, wearing it yesterday. They made things to last in the Olden Days.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Love and Torey Hayden

I've always been interested in child development and in the early 1980s, when I first began teaching, I came across, quite by chance, a book called One Child by an American author, Torey Hayden.

It was a true story about her work as a teacher with a little girl who was an elective mute - that is, a child who can talk, but for some reason - often connected to a past trauma - doesn't.

I found it fascinating. Nobody seemed to have heard of Torey Hayden: I kept the book and re-read it several times over the years.

Then, just a few years ago, Torey Hayden popped up again. She had now - to my amazement - moved to Wales and had started writing up much of her work with other children who were elective mutes, or who had other special needs, in a series of books. Emily and I have bought each one as it's come out, and frequently fought over who got to read it first.

I like Torey Hayden's simple, no-nonsense written style, and I've always liked her views on the world, and on people, and her approach to education.

Currently, I'm reading Silent Boy, and in it I found a passage which rang so true with me that it made me realise why I've liked her so much all these years.

It's a paragraph about love, and here's the relevant part of it:

"I was a great one for loving anyway. It was an emotion that came easily to me. I could do it effortlessly and over such an incredible range of people, big and small, old and young, male and female. I savoured the emotion: it made all things bright and beautiful to me when in the hard, cold light of day, I knew they really weren't. But that was always enough, to feel the beauty."

That's how I feel.

Friday, January 04, 2008

At the Hairdresser's

There are two essential qualities that a hairdresser needs.

Firstly, the ability to cut hair: and, secondary to that, it helps if he or she has an interest in shampoos and gels and mousses and all those other things that are important for the mystique of hair care.

Secondly, a hairdresser needs people skills. The ability to remember every client's name: the ability to make the salon a warm welcoming place where the staff feel valued and the clients feel at home.

My hairdresser has the first of these.

She doesn't have the second. At all. But she does try.

"Ah, Brenda, come in. Emma! Come and take Brenda's coat!" says Angela, for so I shall call her, though Angela's not her name.

My name is not, and never has been, Brenda, either. And there's a limit to the number of times that I'm prepared to tell her this, and I passed that limit long ago. But hey, sometimes she calls me Anne, instead.

So Emma, the latest in a very long line of juniors, comes and tries to take my jumper but there's no way I'm letting her have it as the place is freezing.

"Would you like a coffee, Brenda?" asks Emma.

"NO!" yells Angela, the hairdresser. "Don't offer the client a coffee YET! She's EARLY! Get her to SIT DOWN and then FINISH THE JOB YOU WERE DOING!"

Emma trots meekly away.

"Would you like a coffee, Brenda?" asks Angela.

"No, thank you," I say.

"Let me take your jumper."

"No, thank you."

She eyes it hopefully.

"You won't feel the benefit when you get out if you don't give it to me," she says.

"I'll keep it on, thank you."

I get my book out.

"Wouldn't you prefer a magazine?"

"No, thank you."

"A magazine would be more relaxing. You don't want to be reading a book in the hairdresser's. This is your time for pampering. You don't want to spend it reading a book."

"I'm happy with my book, thank you."

Emma comes back.

"Would you like a coffee?"

"No, thank you."

Emma washes my hair. She asks me if I've booked my holidays yet: she tells me about her boyfriend: she tells me about what she did on New Year's Eve. Finally she stops speaking for a couple of minutes whilst she fetches a towel.

Angela notices.

"EMMA!" she yells. "CONVERSATION! You've got to TALK TO THE CLIENT! It's part of the JOB!"

I move back to my original seat. Angela has closed my book and put it back in my bag.

The next client comes in. She has a rather croaky voice.

"What's wrong with your voice?" asks Angela.

"I don't know," says the client, "I'm seeing the doctor tomorrow. Perhaps he'll be able to tell me then."

"You want to see the doctor about that," says Angela, waving the scissors about. "One of my other clients had a croaky voice just like yours. She's dead now. Throat cancer."

It's like being in the hairdressing equivalent of an episode of Fawlty Towers. Fortunately, Angela cut my hair very short, at my request, so I won't have to go back there for a while.

Next time, there'll be a different junior. There always is.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Snow and Crumpets

Siegfried commented recently on my blog that we Brits are a bit too obsessive about the weather.

And yes, I suppose we are - but then we have a lot of weather to be obsessive about. Look at this photo, taken in our garden in Leeds today. There must be nearly two dozen flakes of snow on that ivy. Any more and all the trains will stop.

Even Florida is having a cold snap and you can read about it on Silverback's blog. But there's one thing we know how to do in Britain as soon as the weather turns nasty - which, let's face it, is much of the time - and that is comfort food.

This photo's entirely in homage to Siegfried, whose enticing picture of crumpets on his blog on December 31st made me rush out and buy some. His photo's classier: mine is a bit more point-and-click.

But if you've never eaten crumpets, this is the weather in which to start.

Little Beast

This afternoon I was mostly at The West Yorkshire Playhouse, watching their production of Beauty and the Beast.

The Stage newspaper had given it an excellent review: however, you can't always tell from The Stage, which is perhaps better known for listing all the actors' names and saying "they were very good" than for its incisive criticism.

This production, however, was extremely enjoyable, and the actors excellent.

Of course, it was a family show, so there were lots of small children in the audience, most of whom were very well-behaved.

In the second half, however, a small child in the balcony decided to repeat every line each actor said, immediately after the actor had said it, as a kind of shouted echo.

It became Very Annoying very very quickly. The child's parents, or whoever he was with, made no attempt to stop it.

Perhaps fortunately, I was there on a work-related trip, and therefore was determined to quell my Inner Schoolmarm. I was really struggling to keep her down, though - she was fighting to get out and she wanted me to get to my feet and say something along the lines of,

"Would the owners of that annoying child take him OUT please and stop ruining the play for the rest of us, before I come up and throw him over the balcony?"

I did manage to keep quiet, though - it has not always been so, believe me. A few people made "sssssh" noises. The child's parents did nothing. The theatre did nothing. The actors kept their concentration superbly, though I spoke to one of them afterwards and she said it was really difficult.

Of course, it wasn't entirely the child's fault: nobody told him to stop, or not in any way that was effective, anyway. We're British. We put up with such things. I wish we wouldn't.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Bleakly Midwinterish

This is not my favourite time of the year. The rose hips, below, sum it up for me. Everything's predominantly grey, bleak and midwintery.

In the Bleak Midwinter is one of my favourite carols. It was originally a Christmas poem by Christina Rossetti, written for an American magazine, Scribner's Monthly, in 1872.

Gustav Holst wrote the music, which is known as "Cranham" and I've always liked the tune.

The first verse is great, though more evocative of a Northern winter than a typical winter in Nazareth, I suspect. Still, I love both the words and the sound of them.

In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan
Earth stood hard as iron
Water like a stone
Snow had fallen, snow on snow
Snow on snow
In the bleak midwinter.
Long ago.

The last verse isn't bad: it has a kind of haunting quality: sentimental, but I love a bit of sentimental from time to time:

What can I give him
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would give a lamb
If I were a wise man
I would do my part
Yet what I can, I give him
Give my heart.

But sadly, in the middle verses poor Christina lost it completely. Here's my least favourite:

Enough for him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay
Enough for him, whom angels
Fall down before
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore

A breastful of milk and a mangerful of hay? Has anyone ever, before or since, used the phrase "a breastful of milk"? No, I thought not. And that's because it's hideously, wince-makingly awful.

The other two middle verses are also clumsily worded - it's as though Christina was thinking "Oh, damn, they wanted five verses and I've only got two good ones and the deadline's tomorrow. I'll hide the bad ones in the middle and hope nobody notices."

I know the words of lots of carols from singing in the school choir years ago - but, interestingly, though I love the tune of this one, those middle verses just haven't stuck in my head.

Ever optimistic, I'm moving on now to quote a bit of Shelley: - Ode to the West Wind. I find the poem as a whole is really a bit OTT but it has a great first line:

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being

He should then have cut the whole of the rest of it and jumped straight to the ending:

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Here's to Spring: to lambs, daffodils and better weather.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

New Year's Resolutions

Here are my nieces Daisy and Flo watching some rather loud fireworks last night.

And so to my New Year's Resolutions.

The first thing is that I'm going to be honest on this blog. It's not that I've been dishonest in the past and it's not that I'm going to tell you everything: it's just that I'm making a point of it. If I tell you I believe something, that will be my true belief.

Like everyone else at this time of year, I'd like to lose some weight - though, mindful of The Wedding coming up in February, I've been rather careful over Christmas and have in fact lost a couple of pounds, which I think deserves some sort of medal in itself. I don't eat lots of stuff that's bad for me - I'm diabetic so don't eat a lot of sweet things, even though I'd sometimes like to. I hardly drink alcohol, either. I'm not a wholepacketofbiscuits binge-eater. So it's clear that I must just eat too much of everything, so I'm going to stop that (she said, in a triumph of hope over experience).

During the first half of last year I was having loads of exercise, mostly walking and swimming and some yoga, but it all went a bit to pot when the Communist got ill and any free time started going on hospital visits. So, having started with a three-mile walk yesterday, I'm determined to build it all up again. I'm partly descended from Eastern European peasant stock and I think I was just made to do lots of physical work - and don't tend to, these days.

I haven't travelled nearly enough, for various reasons, and I hope to remedy that a bit this year too. I've never left Britain in the winter to travel to somewhere hot and the idea seems really decadent - but I plan to try it. I plan more local travel, too - a day in the Yorkshire Dales or the Lake District is bliss to me and I am going to have more of them.

I love both the jobs I do - working for the actors' agency, and helping to teach Communication Skills to health care professionals. But I tend to work too hard. If I'm not working at my jobs or doing housework, I feel guilty, which is ridiculous. I watch short television programmes generally, but don't tend to sit down long enough to watch a film - and yet I love films. Mad. So I'm going to watch some films.

I'm going to continue to write this blog, of course. I've really enjoyed writing it since I started it nearly two years ago. Making friends through it has been completely unexpected, and a total delight.

A very Happy New Year to all who read this. Please keep reading.