Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Embarrassing Bodies

Embarrassing Bodies is a series on Channel Four this week and I've been first held then gripped by it. (Shan't tell you where - too embarrassing).

The premise is that they have a kind of travelling surgery with some doctors in it, and you can bring your embarrassing bits to show them, and they tell you what's the matter and then - hopefully - cure you. Or tell you it isn't that embarrassing.

The slight drawback - from the patient's point of view - is that, whilst they're reassuring you how unembarrassing your rude bits are, they are showing them in full-frontal Technicolor to the whole nation.

What intrigues me is - why on earth do people agree to this? Will people do literally anything to get on the telly?

And the answer seems to be a resounding YES. I don't understand why. I don't know why people want to be on telly in the first place, unless they're actors or presenters.

I've been on telly twice, oh yes. Firstly, in some YTV programme presented by Miriam Stoppard in nineteen-seventy-something. I stood there demurely in a frock and asked a question about acupuncture. I got paid eight quid. I wasn't too thrilled with any part of it, except for the eight quid, which was enough to buy a small house or something in those days.

The second time was in some BBC2 discussion programme about public transport, which was quite possibly the most boring programme ever made. I asked, by prior arrangement, a question about trams and got a vile lie in response from some scheming politician, and then wasn't allowed to come back with my reply.

And if I'm never on telly again, I can't say I'll be bothered.

However, I digress.

The first Embarrassing Bodies programme was filmed in Leeds, so I was especially interested about what embarrassing bits could be found in my home city. It was about skin problems and featured, amongst other things, a lady who had a hideously embarrassing skin tag on her anus. So embarrassed was she about it that we only got one glorious close-up. Mind you, they repeated it about four times.

Then there was Sore Willy Man, who was going to get married, but who couldn't have sex because of his Sore Willy, which was shown to us in all its glory (it did look very sore). I bet his fiancee was delighted, now the whole nation has seen it, and I bet his mates won't ever mention it. Well, not more than two or three times a day for the next twenty years or so. Perhaps it won't be so sore by then.

Last night was Breasts and I have to say I marvelled at the poor woman whose boobs were each the size of Brazil. She had them reduced in size, and I think that was the right thing to do: I was less sure about A-Cup Woman who had breast implants because everyone agreed that her boobs had shrunk after having babies. I was less sure because I don't believe in having operations unless they're absolutely necessary (as I think it was with Brazil-size Woman who was having back problems from the sheer weight): and also because I just don't like the idea of breast implants.

It's on tonight and tomorrow. Tonight - Ladyparts. Tomorrow: Manparts. (What is it about his show that's making me go all coy? I'm not usually coy, and I'm not usually embarrassed about any body parts or problems - I've had a baby and I've done a heck of a lot of medical roleplays. So I'll stop the coyness. Vagina. Penis. Testicles. That should do it).

We've already seen the Woman with Too Much Skin in a shot only normally seen on terrestrial television when a baby's being born. She turned up, stylishly dressed, and then removed her stylish knickers and showed us the lot.

Yes, I think it's great if people can talk about things that embarrass them about their bodies, and I hope that the programme will lead to other people being able to go to their doctor about things that they would previously find too embarrassing. But I just don't know why the people on this show are happy for us to see all their tricky bits (oh look, I'm going coy again).

Anyway, not being used to seeing lots of women's breasts, I have to say I was rather surprised, and I must say, in a low whisper, that I ended up feeling rather pleased with mine. But I'm not going to tell you why and a photograph doesn't follow.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Cool Again, Naturally

It's cool to like, say, Abba now, after years of many people laughing at them. The trouble with the seventies is that the clothes were so - well - seventies. But the smocks of my youth have been back with a vengeance and now it's the music's turn. Hurrah.

There was a lot I didn't like about Raymond Edward O'Sullivan, such as his stage name Gilbert O'Sullivan, which always seemed a bit Engelbert Humperdinck to me. (In case you didn't know, the singer Engelbert Humperdinck pinched his name from the composer of that name and I always thought it was a bit of a naff thing to do.)

I didn't like Gilbert O'Sullivan's initial image of cloth cap and short trousers: hated it, in fact.

But there's something memorable about his songs. Listen to this, and cut out the big collar and the Seventies hair. Here is an excellent song that still gets to me after all these years.

And if you think it's not cool, then guess what? I don't care.

Every Little Thing

I've always liked the song: but I've never believed the lyrics.

I think everything needs to be worried about. Somebody's got to do it. And, since you ask, it's going to be me.

It's not that I have a negative approach to things: I don't. It's just that I think that, to make good things happen, there has to be firstly an idea, then secondly a lot of work. Then, when you've done all that, it has to be worried about, because then, and only then, will it come right.

I'm not saying that's actually the case: I'm just saying that this is how my mind works.

I'm not really an ideas person. I'm more a doggedly-putting-it-into-practice person. And then a worrying-about-the-details person.

"In the moment" is not something that comes naturally to me. Even as I'm looking at the glorious scenery, I'm thinking of the photo I'll take of it, and the people I'll tell about it, and the plans I'll make to revisit it.

"Carefree" doesn't come naturally either. It's true that in life you can do what you want: but you have to be prepared to take the consequences. And I'm always thinking ahead, always thinking of the possible results of any possible action.

In my handbag is everything that could be necessary in any situation on Planet Earth and a few things which could come in useful when I make it to the Space Station. Okay, I may have missed one or two things out but, believe me, it wasn't for want of trying, or for want of thinking about it and worrying about what these things might be.

I worry about all sorts of things. Big, life-and-death things. Small, where's-that-piece-of-paper things. How people are. What will happen next. Have I forgotten anything?

Good job I didn't write the lyrics for this song. My version would go

"Make sure you worry about everything.
And then you stand a half-decent chance of getting at least some of it right."

It doesn't have quite such an upbeat feel, but I think my version is more truthful.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Tough Assignment

I'm prepared to make sacrifices for medical research, so was interested to hear that the Professor of Diet and Health at the University of East Anglia is looking for women volunteers for a difficult trial.

It involves eating a bar of chocolate every day, to see if the flavonoids it contains will give protection from heart disease to women with Type 2 diabetes.

What are flavonoids? Who cares? They are things you find in chocolate that help to get rid of the stuff that blocks up your arteries. That's all you need to know.

So they're giving a control group ordinary chocolate, with flavonoids in, and another group special chocolate, with even more flavonoids in, and the self-sacrificing women involved will have to eat a bar of one or the other every day for a year.

As I read the criteria, I realised that I'm in with a chance.

You have to be:
Female - YESSSSSSSSS! Got all the curvy bits and everything.
Suffer from Type 2 diabetes - Unfortunately, afraid so.
Taking statins to reduce cholesterol - Yes! 40mg a day of the things. They like diabetics to have low cholesterol and mine is Three. Which is Low. Hurrah.
Likely to be selected for astronaut training any day now - Well, obviously, this is extremely likely as you'll realise if you read my post from t'other day. I think it must surely help, so I put it in although they don't actually list it as a requirement.
Post-menopausal - - ah, damn, I don't fit this one. That probably rules me out, then. Pah.

Anyway, I haven't eaten chocolate for ages - since Christmas, probably, and that was only a bit - because my doctor - hey, what do they know? - tells me it's bad for me. And I really hardly eat sweet things at all much these days.

So, in preparation, just in case they want me for this trial anyway, I selflessly tried a few squares of my old favourite, Cadbury's Dairy Milk. It should have been bliss, but instead it was just mildly enjoyable. Perhaps all that stuff they tell you about how your tastes will change is actually true. And I think I've put on half a stone just thinking about it.

If you're interested, you need to email Dr Peter Curtis, the study co-ordinator at, or ring the study nurse Andrea Brown on 01603 288570. But they're only looking for 150 volunteers and I have a feeling they won't be too difficult to find.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Daphne Regrets

I've just been watching Miss Austen Regrets, a well-written, well-made and well-acted television drama about the later years of the late eighteenth century/early nineteenth century novelist Jane Austen.

It made me think a bit.

Jane Austen was the first classical novelist whose work I read really – a bit of Dickens, perhaps, but then I started with Sense and Sensibility when I was about fourteen, and then read the other five in quick succession.

Jane Austen is sometimes categorised as a “romantic novelist” - so you'd think, perhaps, that I would move on to other romantic novels.

But oh, no, I didn't. Because Jane Austen's novels are much more than that – comedy and satire and social history, for starters. Over the years I've tried a few writers who are also – in some cases, wrongly - classed as romantic novelists. I've read most of the Brontes' novels and I like Charlotte's Jane Eyre but confess that Emily's Wuthering Heights is too gloomy for me. I tried Daphne du Maurier (worth a try, there aren't many of us Daphnes about and we should stick together). But, apart from Rebecca, which I quite enjoyed, I just couldn't get into them at all.

As for the Jilly Cooper type, or her from the North-East whose name I forget - - ah, Catherine Cookson - - badly-written mush. The modern versions of these have a lot more sex in them, of course. Erotic? Sadly, no. Boring? Oh, yes. Though the most I've read, I confess, is half a page in a bookshop at somewhere like a railway station. I giggled, and then lost interest.

As part of my university course I read a few early novels – Fanny Burney's Evelina, for example, and they were - - well, okay. But wasn't romantic novels that I liked – it was Jane Austen's “take” on them: her wit, the way she uses words, her insight, her clever dialogue.

Oh, all right then, whilst we're on the "romantic" bit, I liked it- of course! - when Mr Darcy came out of the lake in his wet shirt in the excellent television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice - - but then so did every woman who saw it, and quite a few men too – and that scene was not in the novel, of course!

But there I stuck. I read all Jane Austen early: read a lot of classics at university: and these days I don't read novels at all. What, never? Well, hardly ever.

I hesitate to confess it, because as a child I was always reading some work of fiction or other. Always. Whilst eating, whilst supposed to be tidying my room, whilst supposed to be doing my homework, whilst on holiday - - always. I never thought I would ever stop, and yet I have.

Emily reads lots of “serious” novels and sometimes asks me why I don't. My answer is always along the lines of the world being gloomy enough without reading about fictional gloom.

And yet I'll read gloomy autobiographies, or other gloomy non-fiction. But that's real - I feel I don't want to read the product of someone's gloomy imagination.

I read the best – for me - too early, perhaps, and nothing else has equalled it for me. I keep waiting to come back to novels, and I keep trying. But somehow, I never quite get that can't-wait-to-turn-the-page feeling back, and I think it's a shame.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Flower Arranging

There are things that women are supposed to be good at, and one of them is flower arranging. No, no, not me though.

I'm rubbish at anything like that. In general, I like flowers growing outside and if they're going to be indoors I like the kind of flowers which know exactly what to do when you put them in a vase.

Daffodils, for example. You get a bunch of daffs, trim their ends to make sure they can drink the water, stuff them in any sort of container and out they come with all their jolly yellowness and Springness.

Tulips can be great too, but I got a bit wary of tulips when someone told me that you should stick a pin in their necks - something to do with the fact that they suck up a bubble of air when you put them in water, and it knocks their heads over.

Now that's getting a bit too much for me - no way am I going to go round a bunch of suicidal tulips sticking a pin in their necks. That's bordering on the dreaded Flower Arranging thing.

As for all that twisting wire round flowers and sticking them in foam - it's a mystery to me, and one which I prefer not to contemplate. I don't like arrangements which are over-complicated.

But big, glorious bunches of flowers, where the flowers have been expertly chosen because they complement each other - - now, that's something else. Here are flowers from my mother's birthday:

Here are some from Emily and Gareth's wedding:

Gorgeous. I like flowers to look as though they just came together by happy chance, and not as though someone's spent hours arranging them. And the people who put these together had enough skill to make them look effortless.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Yorkshire Airlines

An old Hale and Pace sketch which you may have seen before - - but I must say I did enjoy it!


I work with actors, as I think you probably know by now. I work for an actors' agency and it's a co-operative agency, which means that it's run for the benefit of the actors, rather than as a wholly profit-making concern for some commercial agent who wants to get rich.

People tend to think that actors will all come over as great roaring look-at-me extroverts of the Brian Blessed type. But most actors - certainly not the ones I know - aren't like that.

Most actors seem very ordinary in real life. I know there are actors out there who are demanding, with luvvie tendencies - and, yes, I have known one or two - but most aren't.

Most are pleasant, funny, ordinary, likeable people in a very tough profession. When actors are interviewed, they often go on about the general wonderfulness of the people they're working with. One reason for this is because it's a very small world, "showbiz" and if they moan about a director or an actor in Yorkshire on Monday the person concerned will have heard about it in London by Thursday. And since there's no career structure - you're only as good as your last job - actors can never afford to slag people off.

An actor I know who worked on Coronation Street recently said how lovely one of the regular characters was - how helpful to her. It was Helen Worth, who plays Gail Platt, since you ask.

And that's what I'd expect. Any actor in a long-running role in a soap will be easy to get on with, because the producers won't put up with any who are trouble: why should they, when there are squillions of actors out there? Those who are drunk, or unreliable, or who gossip about others - - well, one day they'll pick up the script for their next few episodes and find that an errant comet lands on their character and squashes him or her flat.

So, as I say, the best actors seem very ordinary in real life.

What never ceases to amaze me, even after a good number of years of it, is how they can then transform themselves into someone totally different.

I can watch someone whom I know really well, in a play, or on television, playing someone very unlike themselves, and I'm just amazed that suddenly I don't seem to know them any more. Some just seem to come to life on stage: others when you point a camera at them. And yes, that's what acting's about, I know. But it's still a shock to me, always. In a good way.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

My Bid To Conquer Space

I've always been interested in space travel so was very pleased to learn that, for the first time in more than ten years, the European Space Agency is looking for recruits. They're expecting 50,000 applicants and choosing four. Better odds than the chances of winning the X-factor, I'm sure, anyway - and you don't even have to sing! Must be worth a try.

So I'm thinking of applying to be an astronaut, and thought I'd see how many of the criteria I meet.

Age: Between 27 and 37, apparently. So I'm possibly a teensy bit too old. But I often play younger than my own age in medical roleplay so I don't think it's too much of a problem. I'll just say I'm 36. That usually works with medical students.

Scientific Ability: You need a degree (Yes, I've got one!) and it must be in engineering, science, medicine or maths. Well, I think they'll have to forget that. My degree's in English and any little notices around the spacecraft will have the correct spelling and punctuation if I'm on board. These things are important. It does say you have to be able to speak English though, so I score 100% on that one. Apparently speaking Russian is an advantage, but come on, sod that, I'll just speak loudly and clearly in English to any passing Russians. Oh, it helps if you're a qualified pilot, apparently. Which I'm not. But I have a driving licence with three points on it for speeding, so I think that shows I could go a bit faster if necessary. How hard can it be to drive a rocket?

Patience: "Every astronaut must embody patience itself".
The selection process lasts a year, and then basic training lasts eighteen months, and then there's advanced training of two years.
I think I may fall down on this a bit. I'm not very good at waiting and seeing. Three minutes of "wait and see" is about my limit. I think they'll have to alter the training programme for me. Apparently you have to learn how to do bits of plumbing and electrics but I think I'll leave that sort of thing to the blokes. There's a place for feminism, and this isn't it. And I'm not going to park it when it lands, either, since you ask.

Bravery: What, you mean I might die? Oh, come on. They'll just have to make it safer then, won't they? Duane Ross, manager for astronaut selection and training at NASA, says "But we don't want daredevils, people who will want to take unnecessary risks." Quite right too. I'm certain I wouldn't take any unnecessary risks. I'd just sit quietly and catch up on my reading till we got to the Moon or wherever.

Teamwork: I'm not bad at this, honest. And I'll always make the tea. I'll probably bring the biscuits and Jaffa Cakes too. I don't mind doing the ironing, either, if there's some decent telly to watch.

Prepared for Strange Lifestyle: I think my lifestyle's pretty strange anyway, compared to some. I work with actors. And medical students. Apparently astronauts have to pace themselves and work a forty-hour week which is far less than I ever do. I think I'll be fine.

Psychologically Sound: Of course I am! How dare you? - - - Well, apart from being a bit claustrophobic. In fact quite a lot. I think they'll need to make the spaceships bigger to accommodate me. With trees and plants and suchlike. A swimming pool would be good.

My Extra Plus Points: And I have the added bonus that I have a memorable name, like Buzz, and not a boring one, like Neil, which would be a good thing publicity-wise. And I'm quite easy to get on with, unless you're really annoying.

I think I'm in with quite a good chance, on balance. I'm going to download the application form.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

At Last, Spring

At last, after a seemingly endless period of cold weather, it seems to be Spring.

And as I walked through Gledhow Woods yesterday, I marvelled, as I do every year, at the sudden beauty of it all, even in city woodland.

Sunshine and green grass.

New leaves and bluebells coming out.

Little clusters of wood anemones.

And, nestling in the undergrowth:

Great heaps of litter.

Why do we seem to accept this kind of thing when other countries don't? What's wrong with us?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

All the Difference

One way to ruin a good poem for ever for someone is to plonk it in front of them in an exam and make them answer lots of pretentious questions about it.

That's what they did to me, in my Finals at University, when dinosaurs ruled the earth and jeans flared out to the horizon.

American Literature was what I'd been studying, and they gave me this. It's The Road Not Taken by the American poet Robert Frost .

In those days it wasn't perhaps so well-known as it is now but I'd read it as part of my course and I always liked it, even though they chose to torment me with it in one of the exams.

I've mercifully blotted out whatever they asked me about that day, but here's some dozy exam question that I found about it on t'interclacker:

This poem is usually interpreted as an assertion of individualism, but critic Lawrence Thompson has argued that it is a slightly mocking satire on a perennially hesitant walking partner of Frost's who always wondered what would have happened if he had chosen their path differently.

What evidence can you find in the poem to support each of these views?

What evidence can you find in the question to support my ever-growing theory that answering questions like this might stop you reading poetry forever?

Anyway, last night, thinking about why people like some people and not others, and why people become friends, I thought of this poem, and found I can apply it in some way or another to all the people whom I like. And I've really struggled to find a way to phrase that last sentence which doesn't sound totally pretentious. And if it does sound totally pretentious, I want you to know that I tried, honest. Enough! Here's the poem.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Eighty-Fourth Birthday

Adolf Hitler would have been a hundred and nineteen today.

He was, of course, one of the horrifically significant figures of the 20th century.

That's enough of him. Far more significant to me is someone who – much to her fury – shares his birthday, April 20th – my mother.

She was born on April 20th, 1924, which makes her eighty-four today.

My mother was born Joan Bleasdale – no middle name, I don't know why not – in Barrow-in-Furness, now in Cumbria, but then in Lancashire. It's a shipbuilding town and feels a very long way from anywhere, though it's very near to the Lake District.

After attending Barrow Grammar School for Girls my mother won a scholarship and was the first person in the family to go to university. She read English at the University of Leeds during the Second World War, where the three-year course was crammed into two years.

She is very, very sociable and loves any kind of party or social event – she's always found it impossible to understand that, unlike her, I don't blossom in a big group of people. When I was a teenager she would persuade me to go to a party that I didn't want to go to, then arrive to collect me, be invited in and become the life and soul of it whilst I hid in a corner waiting to go home.

At Leeds University she edited the student newspaper, the Gryphon, and held meetings of various student societies in her flat. The Communist, who was then training to be a pharmacist, came to one of these meetings and that's how they met. They married in 1948 or 1949 or 1950 – they don't seem to know which year.

After university my mother worked as a journalist on the News Chronicle in London for a while, and then returned to Leeds and worked for many years as a teacher, firstly at secondary schools and later as a teacher of infants.

I was born when she was thirty-two, and my brother when she was forty-one. She had a lot of problems staying pregnant - six miscarriages before I was born and two more before my brother was born. As a child I used to imagine all these ghost brothers and sisters who never made it to be properly born.

Her parents both excelled in gymnastics: my grandmother was always the little one on top of the pyramid – and my mother's always been very athletic. She was Captain of Leeds University hockey team. Even at eighty-four, she can still swim half a mile without even considering it. She loves dancing of all kinds and is an excellent ballroom dancer. She's always out in the garden and she does all the gardening for both our houses. She's always doing ironing for me, too.

Yes, she's amazing: but, because she's my mother, I take it for granted, though I do try not to.

When she was sixty-eight she had a major stroke and – perhaps because she was so fit – made something approaching a miracle recovery. She lost all speech and movement but rapidly got them back, though had to work very hard at learning to read again, and has mixed up “he” and “she” ever since. Numbers, too, are a bit of a mystery to her.

But it's been her attitude that's been affected by the stroke – her natural bounce and positivity were crushed by it and the lasting legacy is that she's just unable to deal with anything new. Her reaction to anything – no matter how good – tends to be “Oh, no!” and I'd be the first to admit that I find this really difficult to deal with on a daily basis. I find myself thinking “My mother's not like this!”

She's had a really difficult year with the Communist's illness too, and worries about every little thing. It's exhausting, and I don't seem able to stop her.

There was no trace of this worry today. We took her out to lunch and she loved it. She came back to her house and the Communist came to visit in a wheelchair taxi. There were cards, presents, a wonderful surprise cake (thank you so much) and suddenly she felt that it was her favourite thing, a Party! Thanks to everyone who contributed.

She's just been telling me what a lovely time she had. It was like having her old self back with a vengeance. Her mother lived to be ninety-three so I hope she's got a few more good years yet.

Here she is today, with the Communist.

Happy Birthday, Mum.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Child Brainbox

The trouble with the children who take part in a television programme called Child Genius is their parents. For, of course, it was the parents who got them into it in the first place.

It's a series of programmes following the progress of children with a very high IQ. Apparently "genius" is used to describe anyone with an IQ of over 140: but I think that's a bit of a loose definition. I'd just describe that as "jolly clever". To me, a genius is someone who gives something very new and different to humanity: a da Vinci or a Shakespeare or an Einstein, and I don't think there are many of them.

In this programme, therefore, we had Brainboxes and their Parents.

We had Peter, home-schooled, concentrating on chess because his parents thought he was good enough to be world champion. Sadly, a tournament abroad brought him swiftly down to earth - he came sixty-seventh out of ninety-one and hence was left with not much in life. Fortunately his parents did seem to realise, after that, that there could be more to life than chess and he actually met some other kids to play with.

We had Adam, whose high IQ got him a scholarship to a prep school: a feeder school for Eton and the like. The scholarship meant that the fees dropped from £9,500 to £4000 per year but his dad was an investment banker and I got the impression that the family weren't that broke. By the end of the programme the parents had discovered, apparently rather by chance, that his younger brother Sam, who until then had been free to run about and play and not go off to posh boarding school, also had an IQ of 137, so his status as The Thick One was only really relative.

Then there was Mikhail, who at age five had become the youngest member of Mensa. At that age he was interested in maths, but - horrors! - his verbal skills were found to be below his maths skills - so shortly afterwards he found himself taking part in a charity Spellathon to improve them and show him off as The Youngest Member of Mensa.

Finally, in this programme, we had Georgia Brown age three. Youngest child in the family, IQ of 152, mother mad as only a Bonkers Pushy Mother can be.

"Look at this photograph of Georgia! Can you see the aura of white light around her?"

I didn't like Pushy Chess Father. I didn't like Investment Banker and His Young Wife's decision. They split up their two sons by sending The Brainy One to boarding school - always, always a bad idea in my book, even when done with the best of intentions - and keeping The Thick One at home.

I didn't like the parents who thought that putting their son in to be a member of Mensa at age five was a good idea. And I particularly didn't like the way that Bonkers Mother spoke to poor brainbox Georgia "And why have you become a member of Mensa, Georgia?" "Because I'm being clever."

Okay, I admit to a bit of a Chip on Shoulder issue here, because I too had Brainbox Child, - not Genius Child - but then I don't think any of the children in this programme was Genius Child either. We went down a different route, and I'm not sure all of it was right.

When Emily got full marks in all her SATS tests at age seven - and she was the youngest in the school year as well - the Sats Inspector Man wanted her to try the SATS tests that the eleven-year-olds usually do. And the school said no: what was the point, they said, of sitting her in a room on her own to try to prove that she was clever, when we already know it?

And I always thought that was the right decision.

For her secondary education, we looked at the Private Girls' Grammar School but thought she'd feel like a fish out of water with all the Posh Girls and their Posh Parents and she says now that she's so glad we didn't send her there: most, though not all, of her friends are boys anyway and she thinks girls' schools are all fashion and Botox.

Emily went to an ordinary comprehensive school - though one with a good reputation, some of which was well-deserved and some of which wasn't.

She did brilliantly academically, made some really good friends, and was bullied throughout by a group of yobs who didn't like the fact that she wasn't like them and really didn't want to be. In general, she had a horrible time, and is so very much happier now that she's at university.

So what would have helped? I wouldn't have kept her at home - she's quite shy and reserved anyway and I think would have had real problems later on. But the school that she went to was too big.

A small, mixed grammar school would have been perfect for her - and yet I know that, for many, that old system of grammar schools and secondary moderns didn't work either.

I don't know what the answer is: but I don't think putting your clever child in a television programme like Child Genius would help them in any way.

And yet, of course, I watched it with fascination. So perhaps I'm as guilty as those parents are.

Friday, April 18, 2008

To Finnish the Story

Although Emily and Gareth's luggage getting lost was a really horrible thing to happen, it did give rise to some excellent bad puns.

A love of puns is supposed to be a sign of advancing age but in that case I was born old - I've always loved all those puns to be found in Reader's Digest and such.

Emily and Gareth's first case turned up after a couple of days and then the second one appeared outside their cottage several days later. Infuriating, but at least they've got them back. As I write this, Emily and Gareth are back in Blighty on the train back from Manchester Airport.

Okay, on to the puns:

The Finns' clipped delivery and lack of apparent empathy is apparently well-known and they sometimes have to be sent on courses on How To Talk To Foreigners And Not Sound Rude. I thought that, with my experience in Communication Skills, I could set up a course for them and call it Finnishing School.

Thanks to Silverback whose comment when the first case was found was that "they're not over the Finnishing line yet".

Thanks also to Stephen who commented that the cases appeared to have vanished into Finnair.

That's all folks! (for now) (sorry) (but not very)

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Place of Safety

Somewhere in England today I was doing some demanding roleplay about domestic violence, to help some young doctors learn to broach the issue with their patients.

The woman whom I was playing had turned up at the surgery complaining of chest pain - the most recent in a series of strange symptoms that she had had. Chest pain can of course be a symptom of a heart attack but it can also be a symptom of other things, including stress. The story was supposed to be that upon thorough examination there was nothing wrong with her heart, but she had substantial bruising on her upper arms.

And that was where the roleplay was supposed to start. "I have examined you: your heart and blood pressure etc are fine, but I couldn't help noticing that you have bruising on your arms - -- "

This is the kind of consultation - raising the possibility of domestic violence - that doctors find extremely difficult, not surprisingly, and that's why they need to practise discussing it with the patient and then dealing with it.

But the first doctor I - playing the role of the patient - encountered - probably because of fear of where it might go if he mentioned the bruising - decided to go straight down the medical route, starting from the beginning.

"May I ask what's brought you to the surgery today?"

Slightly wrong-footed, as it most certainly wasn't the beginning I was expecting, I said "Well, I've been getting pains in my chest."

He was off! On safe ground! Not having to discuss anything else!

"How long have you had the chest pain? Could you describe the pain? Is it a gripping pain or a burning pain? How often does it happen? How long does it last on each occasion? Does it go anywhere else? Into your jaw? Down your arm? How bad is the pain on a scale of one to ten where one is hardly any pain and ten is the worst pain you have ever experienced?"

I wanted to say "Look, sunshine, that's not what this roleplay's supposed to be about and well you know it. I'm not a real patient, I'm acting, and I've no idea what the sodding pain was like because it's only there as a pretext to start the roleplay."

But, of course, I couldn't - I was in role and had to stay in role no matter what happened: that's the first rule of roleplay. The learner can ask for "time out" if they get really stuck: the roleplayer never can, of course - it would be totally unprofessional.

Fortunately I know enough about chest pain to play it all down and make it sound as though I couldn't possibly be having a heart attack, but it was a bit difficult for a while: it was left to the next doctor to have a go at the roleplay to broach the tricky subject of the bruises.

That's what doctors do when they're under threat. It's what we all do - retreat to a place of safety. And to a doctor, a place of safety is often where the body is treated as something like a large piece of Meccano, and the personality and emotions attached to it are ignored as much as possible.

That's not altogether the doctors' fault, of course - as I said, retreating to a place of safety is something that we all do. It's not that they are failing in an easy task - some consultations are incredibly difficult, and doctors are almost always short of time too.

There's no substitute for actually practising saying the words that you might say to broach a tricky emotional subject. It's very, very difficult to do and very easy to say something that will lose all rapport with the patient, or indeed cause them distress that they'll remember for years.

Just occasionally up pops an older doctor who says something like "Oh, we didn't have all this touchy-feely stuff in my day. It's all just common sense."

They are inevitably the ones who are remembered by their patients for all the wrong reasons: for going round spreading misery and fear.

All credit is due to almost all the young doctors with whom I did the roleplay today. They were all scared to try it, but they approached it with bravery and honesty and an acknowledgement that the subject of domestic violence is incredibly difficult to deal with. They are the doctors we need.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Late-Night Zookeepering

I always wanted to be a zoo-keeper. My impressions of the job were based almost entirely on Johnny Morris in the television show Animal Magic, where he wore a zoo-keeper's hat and gave the animals funny voices.

I never managed it: I've always blamed the school I attended, Roundhay High School for Nice Middle-Class Girls, for not offering biology as a subject - I expect they thought it was a bit smutty.

However, over the years I have looked after plenty of animals and birds, though none of them as big as an elephant, which has always rather disappointed me.

Rabbits, guinea-pigs, tortoises, terrapins, a crow without a tail, mice, hamsters, gerbils, goldfish, catfish, tadpoles too numerous to mention, an African clawed frog (Xenopus Laevis - no idea why I remember its Latin name when mine was called Fred) a dog, various cats.

These days we have Froggie the cat, Kelloggs the corn snake and three leopard geckos. One is a delicate little creature called Tasselhoff, and the other two are big bruisers in comparison - they look like Les Dawson in a frock and I call them Brenda and Julie. They live in a different tank from Tasselhoff because they tend to beat her up.

Also, we have four baby Giant African Land Snails and these are only about half an inch long.

Not one of these beasties is mine: they all belong to either just Emily, or Emily and Gareth. The baby Giant African Land Snails were a wedding present from Ginny and Russ who run the wonderful Silent World aquarium in Tenby.

But somehow all these creatures are living in our house at the moment. So I have a fair amount of zookeepering to do before I go to bed, as these creatures are pretty nocturnal.

Having fed the cat, and let it out and then let it in again, I feed the crickets, some of which are then fed to the geckos. The geckos rush to the front of the vivarium when I approach and then climb out onto my hand to be fed waxworms. I change the snake's water and, at the moment, its bedding, because it is recovering from its operation which I shan't mention because I know that at least one reader does NOT want to hear about it. So at present its bedding is kitchen roll rather than the usual wood chippings. Then I make sure that the baby Giant African Land Snails have some damp paper and dandelion leaves to eat.

Usually, at this point, it is about half past midnight, and I begin to think that other women's bedtime routine does not generally include this kind of thing. Do all those adverts for face cream begin "Just after you've fed the geckos - - "? I think not.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

How Much In Old Money?

It's a long time ago now but there used to be twelve pence in a shilling and twenty shillings in a pound. Two hundred and forty pence. Forty sixpences. Eight half-crowns (a half crown was two shillings and sixpence). Eighty threepenny bits (pronounced "thruhpenny"). Four hundred and eighty halfpennies (often written ha'penny and pronounced "haypennies". You could, if you wished, call two shillings a florin. You could, if you wished, call one pound one shilling a guinea. Posh things, such as ladies' hats, used to be priced in guineas. Before I was born there were farthings, and each of those was half a ha'penny.

Oh look, there's more about it here. I am beginning to feel old.

It all changed on February 15, 1971. Decimal currency came in with the coins much as they are now: except one penny was called one New Penny or NP. There were half new pennies, too, but no two pound coins, of course, oh no.

The prices of everything suddenly went up slightly as shopkeepers rounded everything up. Don't tell me they didn't, for I was there (though Very, Very young of course).

I loved the old money: you could check through your change and find a Victorian penny, or sometimes one from even earlier.

In one of my endless junk-clearing forays in this house, I found this magazine:

Petticoat/Trend (clearly the two magazines had merged) dated February 24, 1968. It cost one shilling (that's five new pence, folks, or 5np if you prefer) and actually it was quite a glossy one for those days.

Its big shocking article is all about whether it's better to remain a virgin ("Virgins: Wise or Foolish?")

And there are lots of fashion pictures like these:

But it was the prices that interested me.

Okay, yes, you probably wouldn't call a frilly frock Gay Girl now, let's get that one over with, and you can insert your own cheap gag about dungarees if you wish.

But I'd forgotten that the prices were given in such different ways.

89s. 11d. That's eighty-nine shillings and elevenpence. You had to put the full stop after the s as it was short for shillings and after the d as it was short for some old Roman coin like denari or something - look, even I'm not that old.

Anyway, the price was given that way to in order to look Posh. 89s.11d should have been £4 9s. 11d.

Again, the same thing with the shoes at 65s., which should be £3 5s.

And here, to look Especially Posh, we have a dress priced in guineas: 5gns. was more usually written as £5 5s. The pink and lemon smock dress was, however, even more expensive at £6 9s.6d.

This was over forty years ago, of course, so you can see how expensive these clothes were for those days!

Okay, that's enough: I've felt older with every word I type and I'm now feeling about a hundred and thirty-three.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Pedants' Delight

I was pleased to discover Punctuation Station which is written by someone who clearly shares my love of getting the apostrophe in the right place.

In another life I was a secondary-school teacher of English and I was pretty good at teaching about apostrophes.

I would patiently go on and on at my poor classes until their brains rattled and they pleaded for mercy. They may have hated me, but they could all spell business and necessary and February and they could all put apostrophes in the right place.

Business and necessary and February are words that most of my classes seemed to get wrong and I became so bored of correcting them that I would leap on some poor teenager and make him or her spell one of them in the middle of a lesson about something else.

"So, in the first act of A Midsummer Night's Dream the month is not February but if the play did happen to take place in February then how would we spell it, Michelle?" - - -

Yes, yes, I know, I know. It's a whole separate language called Schoolteacher, and I was fluent in it.

Last week I was unexpectedly called upon to teach a class of adults about things which, in medical roleplays, might be included in feedback to medical students. Body language, questioning styles, that kind of thing.

I had a flipchart! I had a felt-tip pen! It wasn't quite the old chalk-and-talk, but it was very nearly that.

"I'm an old-fashioned schoolteacher!" I shouted at them joyfully in my Schoolteacher Voice as I stepped in front of them. "Sit up straight, and if you have chewing-gum, get rid of it NOW!"

I could see them all straighten up, and then remember that they weren't actually in school, and then self-consciously slump slightly back down again.

It was quite fun to get suggestions from all of them and assemble a long list on my flipchart in my neatest roundest writing. It reminded me of how teaching could be fun.

I'm glad I don't have to do it every day in a school, though.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

But Now Are Found - - well, partly - - -

Emily and Gareth were eventually told by staff at Tampere Airport that one of their bags was in Manchester and the other was lost.

Half an hour later the one that was in Manchester turned up at their cottage in Finland, presumably having travelled at warp factor six in some kind of space shuttle.

This made Emily and Gareth considerably happier because most of their clothes were in there: though Emily's jumpers and specially warm coat were in the other one, along with her archaeology text books and the adaptors to charge up their mobiles in Finland. However, I would think that Finland is a good place to buy a new warm coat.

The lost bag remains lost, though I hope it may yet turn up.

Now usually, if anything goes wrong for one of my loved ones, I can sort it through good communication skills (I teach communication skills for goodness' sake!) sheer determination, and a refusal to give in; and Emily retains a touching belief in my ability to sort things out, no matter how tricky. I hated not being able to.

I think the thing that got to me the most in all of this was the feeling of powerlessness. Phone numbers hard to find: very difficult to get through: put on hold for ages: unhelpful people when I did get through.

Usually if I can speak to someone I can get somewhere, but not in this instance. I think the only thing that my incessant pestering did was draw it to their attention: by the time I'd finished people in Helsinki were going up to each other in the street and saying "Hey, have you heard about that honeymoon couple who've lost all their luggage?"

Okay, lots of bags get lost every day: it's just that Emily and Gareth weren't used to this and it was, after all, the beginning of their honeymoon.

Thanks to all my friends and readers (some are both!) who have been so helpful to me whilst this was going on.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Still Lost

I think we all thought it would be better in the morning, and thanks to all of you who left comments.

But it isn't.

Finnair have lost both Emily and Gareth's cases. One is completely lost. The other one might be in Manchester. Or it might be in Helsinki. Quite why that makes it less lost than the other one, I don't know.

As it's the weekend it's impossible to get any sense out of any of the numbers that we've tracked down - most of them simply aren't answering.

Emily and Gareth therefore drove to Tampere Airport to try to talk to Finnair - but there's nobody at the desk. It's the weekend. It's closed.

Their phone chargers are in the suitcase, so pretty soon they won't be able to talk to us either.

So they're heading into Tampere - with an upset Gareth driving a strange car on the wrong side of the road, which worries me - and I've suggested they should get some food and buy some clothes. But, of course, they haven't a lot of money with them and Gareth has a card but that hasn't a lot of available money on it either. Staying in a log cabin, this was supposed to be a fairly cheap holiday - the only expensive bit was the flights.

They feel like coming straight home but there aren't any flights today and anyway they couldn't afford to pay for them.

There doesn't seem to be anyone who can help.

There is one number for Finnair that occasionally answers and he says "All you can do is wait." They are not offering any other help at all.

Stephen works for a Finnish/Swedish company and says that the Finns are renowned for their clipped delivery, which sounds very abrupt and rude to British ears: apparently they are sometimes sent on training courses to teach them how to sound more polite to foreigners. I've been really conscious of it today: I said to Gareth that the man sounds very matter-of-fact and he said that the problem is that there aren't any actual facts. Where is our luggage? Dunno.

Emily hasn't been abroad very much: she's only been to France several times (by boat) and Amsterdam several times (by plane). I was hoping that this trip, to a country known for being "civilised" - hah! - would be a total joy for both of them throughout.

Instead, they're having an incredibly stressful time, and I'm so worried about them.


Emily and Gareth set off on a slightly belated honeymoon today, to Finland. They've been looking forward to it for ages, and are staying in a lovely log cabin by a lake.

They flew from Manchester to Helsinki and then took another plane to Tampere, and hired a car there to drive to the log cabin.

But it all went horribly wrong at Tampere because all their luggage had remained in Helsinki.

The staff at Tampere airport promised that it would be on the next flight from Helsinki to Tampere - apparently there hadn't been enough time to load it on the plane, though I don't know why not. The staff promised it would be delivered to the log cabin by tonight, "It may be as late as midnight!" said the assistant, laughing.

The staff said that they would ring Emily and Gareth when the plane arrived from Helsinki.

They didn't ring, perhaps because they couldn't work out how to ring a British mobile, or perhaps because they didn't bother.

Midnight in Finland came and went and the luggage didn't arrive: and still hadn't, when I last spoke to Gareth at about half past midnight Finnish time, which is two hours ahead of ours.

So they have no clean clothes, or towels, or shampoo, or any of the other things that have to go in the hold now because of sodding terrorists.

Exhausted, upset and feeling very let down, Emily and Gareth couldn't go to bed in case the luggage arrived. I tried to ring every possible number at every airport involved and they were all closed for the night.

Oh look, I hear you say, it's not a matter of life and death, is it? It can all be sorted out in the morning.

And I hope it will be.

But it was the first day of their honeymoon, and it was horrible and incredibly stressful.

And I can't bear it. It has filled me with such terrible sadness on their behalf. I just can't bear it. I know that it has allowed a whole well of sadness to rise up in me - about the Communist's illness, about him being in the nursing home and wanting to come home all the time when he'll never be able to, about the fact that it's costing £2,300 every four weeks and that my mother's terrified she'll not be able to pay her bills.

But this seems like the last straw. Emily and Gareth had a wonderful wedding and I so wanted their honeymoon to be wonderful too.

I hope it'll all be better in the morning.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Sexism At Last

I've never been one of those women who finds sexism around every corner, perhaps because my lack of interest in sexist men is entirely matched by their lack of interest in me.

Okay, a few of the more senior male doctors with whom I've worked have tried a bit of Superiority but I have retaliated by looking at them like their mothers used to when they were little, and this does tend to work.

But in general, I've never found it a problem at all.

Today, however, I encountered the Sexist Vet.


I know that some people who read this blog really, really don't want to hear about the snake's health problems, so I won't tell you. And there won't be any photos. But anyway, it's now recovering after its operation and I had taken it for a check-up.

Sexist Vet was deeply disappointed to see that it was Daphne rather than Stephen who had brought in the snake. Could I tell my husband this? and that? and could I ask my husband if the snake does this? or that? And could I ask my husband to bring it back on Monday?

He seemed surprised when I picked it up out of the tank. Clearly a snake is a Man Pet in his view.

"Your husband seems very clued-up about the care of snakes," he said admiringly.

Yes, he is, as a matter of fact. AND WHO CLUED HIM UP? - - Emily and I did!

Any suggestion I made, Sexist Vet just cut right in on. Anything I tried to tell him he dismissed.

It's true that Stephen does a brilliant job of feeding the snake, because he has more patience with its stupidity than I have. And it's true that he used his skills in electronics to design and build the Snake-o-stat, which gives the snake probably the best temperature control in the country.

But who was it who spent her entire childhood looking after animals, and wanted to be a vet, and couldn't even contemplate it because the school didn't offer biology as an exam subject? - - er, ME.

It'll be me taking the snake back to the vet's on Monday. I know Sexist Vet will be disappointed. Mind you, if he watches me trying to park in their tiny car park it might give him a good laugh.

Simple Yet Brilliant

Somewhere in England, earlier this week, I was playing the role of a victim of domestic violence, so that some nurses who worked in Accident and Emergency could practise broaching the subject with real victims of domestic violence.

"Did you have make-up?" I was asked by an actor the next day, but no, I didn't need it - the woman whom I was playing had suspicious bruises on her upper arms and abdomen which had come to light when she'd come to A and E because her abdomen hurt. So the roleplay started after the bruises had been found, and I didn't need "real" bruises.

The nurses found it very difficult but - as very often with nurses - dealt with it very well. At the end of it the nurse in charge of the day gave me, and the other person playing the same role, a thank-you card each, because they said they had all found it really useful. I was very touched - I've been doing medical roleplay since 1985, and though I've almost always been thanked, nobody has ever given me a card before.

The course was designed to draw their attention to a new scheme, which was pioneered elsewhere in the country and has now been implemented in the area where I was working.

Victims of domestic violence are always reluctant to go to the police: on average, it takes 35 assaults before they do.

Under this new scheme, once they have been found to have suffered violence, they are asked to fill in a form whilst still in A and E.

And then all the different agencies are alerted, from the police to the school nurse to the local hospitals to Social Services.

So if - say - a parent turns up at A and E with bruises, and then one of the children is found by the school nurse to have strange bruises, the two events will marry up. Simple, yet brilliant.

"It gives the perpetrator the message that we're on to them," said the nurse in charge.

In the area of the country where the scheme was pioneered, the number of people reoffending has dropped from 65% to 15%. In the area where I was working, the scheme has been running for a year and has so far highlighted 200 cases.

You may have assumed that the victims are women - well, most of them are, though, of the 200, five were men, so it's not always so.

A bit Big Brotherish? Well, maybe - - but then, let me repeat the statistic that the number of people reoffending has dropped from 65% to 15% in the first area, and highlighted 200 cases in the second area.

Where children are held to be at risk of violence - and they always are at risk if one of their parents is being hit - then a healthcare professional has no alternative now but to inform Social Services.

And that's where it gets tricky. The whole thing is now reliant on the sensitive handling by Social Services. If, for example, they were to write to the victim of abuse, and the letter were to be found by the perpetrator, then the victim would become in tremendous danger, in many cases.

And if the victim does decide to leave, then that, all statistics show, is the most dangerous time for them, because that infuriates the perpetrator more than anything.

I'm sorry to have to keep using the words "victim" and "perpetrator" but I don't want it to turn into a gender thing, because, as I said above, although most of the victims are women, some are men.

It's always going to be very difficult to help in such situations, without charging in and making things worse. Domestic violence didn't used to be taken seriously - the phrase "just a domestic", often used by police, covered a multitude of tragedies. I think that this scheme is a very good step forward, and I hope it is implemented nationally, with the resources to back it up.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Yogurt and Crisps

One of the reasons I like taking photographs of everyday objects is because they really demonstrate how things change.

The big food cupboard in our kitchen is built into the kitchen wall, backing onto the fireplace in the room behind. The kitchen was only built on in the 1920s, and it has both the feeling of an afterthought and the feeling that it's falling over, because the builders didn't join it on properly and it's been trying to escape from the rest of the house ever since.

And the big cupboard probably, in the 1920s, wasn't a food cupboard, because it backed onto the fireplace, and anyway there was a nice, cool larder next to the kitchen, which is now where the back hall and back door is.

But it's been a food cupboard since the sixties to my knowledge and I wish I had a photograph of how it was then.

All those brands that have gone! All those new ones that have come!

It's the crisps and the yogurt that always demonstrate it to me.

In the Olden Days there were Smiths' Crisps, potato flavoured (what else?) with a little twist of blue paper in the packet containing salt.

One day, in Pisa, Italy, when I was seven, my parents bought me a packet of crisps from a stall and they had a strange new flavour. Aniseed.

The aniseed flavoured crisps never really caught on and never made it to this country. I suspect that the reason was that they were totally vile.

But soon afterwards, I was at Flamingo Park Zoo, as it was called then - now Flamingoland - with Lesley Ball, who was a friend from school, and her parents. They bought some crisps in a thrilling new flavour. Cheese and onion! Fantastic! We each had our photos taken with a parrot on our shoulder and cheese and onion crisps in our hands. It was an iconic moment.

In those days, hardly anyone ate yogurt, which was a kind of Foreign Food. We had some friends who ate it - it was plain, and you put cucumber in it.

Then we discovered that Sixties Heaven - sugar. And we put sugar in it. And it was delicious. And then - another iconic moment - Ski brought out an exciting new flavour. Apricot. And that was it for what seemed like ages. Apricot yogurt, a taste of the future!

Then, one by one, more flavours crept in. I don't know why they took so long. Nowadays everyone takes them for granted, but, because of my sixties roots, I don't like the mixed flavours quite so much - you can keep all your passionfruit-and-melon nonsense. Give me apricot every time. Or raspberry. Or gooseberry. Proper fruits. On their own. In yogurt. That's enough progress for me.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Goodbye, Paul

Judging from the comments on my last couple of posts about Princess Diana, and also about hunting, I feel that a hunting party with Paul Burrell as the quarry would probably please almost everyone.

Paul Burrell, if you have been living under a rock in the Kalahari Desert for the past ten years or so, was the butler described by Princess Diana as her "rock". In spite of being proved to be made not out of rock at all but out of something resembling raspberry jelly, he seems to continue to make a good living from droning on endlessly about it.

Mind you, his over-the-top fear of creepy crawlies was highly entertaining on I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. The rats seemed very pleased to see him.

Let's give him a fitting tribute. Whenever anyone mentions him, pretend you've never heard of him. And while you're at it, do the same with Paris Hilton. (Sorry, I think I once promised never to mention her again, but she just snuck in there).

Let's practise a little now: "Sorry, Paul who? Don't think I've ever heard of him."

Ahhh that's better. I'm going to go and chop up and freeze a big piece of salmon now. Very therapeutic.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Ten Million Quid Later

Ten million quid, it cost, and what do we know now? Princess Diana was unlawfully killed, that's what we know.

I like recording things like this sign - little pieces of history.

Now then, unless you're the Duke of Edinburgh and you're reading this blog at your Me and MI6 - We Got Away With It! party, I think we all knew that the least exciting explanation of what happened was probably going to be the most accurate one.

Common things are common, as doctors are always being told. Your headache is almost certainly just a headache, and not a brain tumour. And just because Diana was a princess, that doesn't mean that she was any less vulnerable to a drunken driver, a high-speed pursuit and not wearing a seat belt.

Ten million quid and 252 witnesses later - not one of whom happened to have a video of the Duke of Edinburgh plotting Diana's death - we're back to square one, even though "unlawfully killed" is rather stronger than the possible "tragic accident".

Mohammed Al Fayed can't let it drop because his son was killed and he knows in his heart of hearts that his employee Henri Paul was most certainly a contributory factor: and that if Dodi and Diana had put their seat belts on, they might still be alive.

The dramatic events of Diana's life somehow served as a marker for the period, and even for the lives of people like me with little interest in the Royals. On the day that Charles and Di got married, with all that pomp and circumstance and that big, creased, not wholly successful fairytale dress, I was at Blarney Castle kissing the Blarney Stone. And I'm sure that, just as everyone was supposed to know where they were when President Kennedy was shot, most people remember where they were when they heard the news that she had died.

But an inquest ten years later? It was always going to be a pointless, expensive waste of time, and so it has proved.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Big Game Hunter

In the Olden Days people used to go to Africa and shoot the bigger animals - lions and suchlike - as trophies.

Then most of the people sensibly grew out of it and decided, correctly in my opinion, that it was better to watch the animals whilst they were alive.

But, in recent times, as Louis Theroux told us in a television programme last night, some people have started breeding the bigger animals for the express purpose of selling them to be shot.

So you can book a kind of Death Safari - travel to Africa, see fascinating new animals, and shoot them.

And it isn't too difficult. You can sit in a hide by a specially- made water hole, and when the animal comes to the water-hole to drink, you pick up a huge great rifle and shoot it. Then you have your photo taken next to the dead animal and feel good about yourself: and then you pay the landowner who has bred the animals, according to their size - down from a couple of grand for a rhino to, say, twenty pence for a small frog. Okay, I lied about the frog, but you understand the principle.

Pete Warren, who was one of those breeding the animals, was mightily offended by Louis Theroux's probing questions about the ethics of it all.

"It doesn't hurt me. I grew up in another culture," he said. A three-year-old rhino, bred to be shot, was particularly valuable because of the length of its horn: 22" and he was paid per inch.

In the various places that Louis Theroux visited, all the landowners seemed to be quite insistent about not letting a wounded animal suffer, and tracking it down to finish it off. Mind you, that was partly because once you've hit it, you have to pay for it.

So, let's look at it from the animal's point of view. Anything wrong with this? The animal is well looked after, well fed and then leads a reasonably natural life in the wild, until one day off it goes to the water-hole and is very suddenly dead. The meat, according to one of the people doing the shooting, is then given to the poor or something, though I'm not quite sure I believed this: it seemed a bit too philanthropic to me and I thought it was rather more likely that it was fed to the lions.

So, is this worse than what we do to say, cows? Or sheep? Or pigs? Especially intensively-reared pigs, for example?

Actually, I wouldn't say it's worse - it's about the same. And, in the case of intensively-reared pigs - and I went round one of these farms in France, and it was horrific - I'd say far better.

Also, the landowners in the programme made the point, very forcefully, that they were breeding animals which were, in many places, being hunted out of existence by poachers, and hence contributing to the survival of many species.

The Big Hunter Chap tried to get Louis Theroux to shoot something and you could see from his expression that he really wasn't impressed when Louis decided not to.

But it all makes me very uneasy. I'm not vegetarian - far from it. I don't have any problem with animals being killed for food, as long as they are well looked after when they are alive.

So the thing that makes me uneasy has to be the people involved.

Perhaps hunting is a very basic human instinct - I'm prepared to accept that.

But this isn't hunting, is it? It's just some very rich people firing guns at animals which are, in many cases, standing right in front of them.

So I know that my reservations about it have nothing much to do with the animals. They're to do with the people.

All the so-called hunters kept going on about how wonderful and proud they felt when they'd shot the animal. And that's the feeling that I don't understand.

If you needed to feed yourself and your family, and you used great skill to track the animal, and then you crept up on it and killed it humanely and this meant that you and your family could eat - well, then, to me, you would be justified in feeling proud.

But paying someone two grand so you could shoot an animal that's standing in front of you? All that shows is that you've more money than sense.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Spitting Again

One of the good things about the nineteen-eighties - - oh, hell, one of the only good things about the nineteen-eighties - apart from Emily's birth, obviously, and a few things I can't currently remember - was the television show Spitting Image. It must have continued into the nineteen-nineties too, since it memorably had a grey-skinned and dull John Major, but it's the eighties I remember.

The programme, I'm certain, had a big influence on the politics of the period - the huge cadaverous David Owen with the tiny David Steel really did nothing to help the Liberals.

But the most memorable political scenes, for me, featured Mrs Thatcher - you know, the Milk Snatcher who was Prime Minister for really a very, very long time - and her Cabinet - - and I even knew who many of them were.

And they were all made of rubber. And the show was fresh and irreverent and funny and a Very Good Thing in the dark days of the eighties (I didn't much like the eighties, can you tell?)

And now the show's back, in essence, retitled Headcases. But instead of being made of rubber, the characters are made of CGI which is Computer Generated Images. I think.

These days, our political leaders and opposition are so dull that we don't know who they are, so the programme-makers had cunningly labelled them. So David Cameron, for example, was introduced as Crikey! It's the Tories!

Some of the gags were nicked from the old Spitting Image (but I didn't care) - the Queen Mother used to have a Mollie Sugden voice and the modern equivalent were Dame Helen Mirren - the only caricature not immediately recognisable to me - and Judi Dench with chav voices.

Since we are living in a cult of Celebrity I felt that Headcases concentrated mostly on that and did a fine job on such obvious targets as Posh and Becks and Katie Price and Peter Andre. Good to see Jeremy Clarkson in there too and hey, it wouldn't be satire without a Trevor McDonald.

I did like the caricatures of the Princes William and Harry - again, their bid to be classed as ordinary blokes wasn't ground-breaking, but I enjoyed it. I also thought the caricatures of them were good and emphasised that hey, they look completely different from each other, don't they? I always wondered why one of them looks like Prince Charles and the other one looks like James Hewitt.

And, just like the older version, it ended with a song - though because the computer graphics can lip-synch they didn't give us the words on the screen as they used to with the old latex puppets, and I rather missed that.

I enjoyed it very much: it didn't quite, in this first episode, get into the "unmissable" place in my head like it used to - or like Not the Nine O'Clock News used to - but I hope it will, in time. I'd like it to be a bit more - well - naughty - controversial - downright offensive - to push the boundaries a bit more. Though, perhaps in these days of wall-to-wall litigation, it won't be able to.

Great to see it back, though - with some of the same people still involved, I notice. It nearly made me feel young again.


I'm currently trying to lose the weight that I put on when I was pregnant.

Yes, I know that my daughter Emily will be nineteen in August, but I've been busy, okay? Anyway, it isn't easy, this losing weight thing.

I've never been vastly overweight: in general, my weight stays about the same at Too Many Stones Too Many Pounds: it doesn't go up or down much, though I've always been heavier than doctors expect, because of my broad European-Peasant back.

If I happened to be a couple of stones heavier, perhaps I'd be more determined about it. I've never gone down the Weight Watchers route, probably because of an arrogant and entirely false presumption that I can do this on my own.

Once, in 1984, after our first baby was born prematurely and died age three weeks, I was incredibly anaemic and just couldn't eat - I didn't eat for two months. Yes, really! I lost LOTS of weight: and, much to my annoyance, was still only down to a size 12 at the end of it. Though I think size 12 is honestly too thin for me - I shall spare you the horrors of a description of how I looked, though it's true that my skin was a tasteful shade of pale green.

At the beginning of last year I worked really hard to lose weight and get fit - - and then the Communist was taken into hospital and any spare time went on visiting him and I didn't have time or energy to exercise much and lived on a diet of hospital sandwiches.

So now I'm trying again.

The trouble is, if I am cheerful I eat. If I am miserable I comfort-eat: though, because I have Type 2 diabetes, I don't actually comfort-eat that much any more, because sense kicks in after two chocolate biscuits. (Dr Thomas Stuttaford, writing in The Times yesterday, felt obliged to point out that Type 2 diabetes takes an average of fifteen years off life expectancy. Thanks, mate, you made my weekend).

If I feel stressed, I just can't eat anything much. And this, you would think, would be helpful in losing weight, at least: but it doesn't seem to be. I think my body goes "Hey! Famine!" and starts conserving every calorie.

I do eat masses of fruit and quite a lot of vegetables: it's a rare day when I don't eat my five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. I like almost all fruit and veg, which helps.

But clearly I'm eating just that bit too much of everything else. And I know that - for me, at least - counting every calorie just won't work - I'd get bored of it in less than a week. So I'm trying to change my habits so I eat permanently just a bit less at every meal. It's not WHAT I eat, with me, it's HOW MUCH.

It's not easy, though. Food is so much tied in with emotions, for me, and I expect it is for almost everyone. Come on, say slim people, the answer is obvious. If you're fat, then eat less food.
Clearly, it's not that simple - our appetites are so tied in with our minds, not just our stomachs.

I'm only brave enough to write this as I've already lost a few pounds. We'll see how it goes.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Good Book about Up North

Thanks to Siegfried who tagged me to do this:

1. Pick up the nearest book of 123 (or more) pages

It is Pies and Prejudice: In Search of the North by Stuart Maconie, which I'm currently reading.

2. Open the book to page 123 and find the 5th sentence:

Well, I'm not sure really - the page starts halfway through a sentence but I'm going with this one:

"This led James Wroe of the Manchester Observer to describe the events with bitter humour as the Peterloo Massacre".

3. Post the next 3 sentences:

He was later arrested for having the temerity to report the events, another echo of Tiananmen. But there were many journalists present and the events immediately found their way into the press. Shelley wrote the impassioned and angry poem The Masque of Anarchy as a response.

4. Forget what you're supposed to do next, which is tag 5 people, and start going on about other things in a slightly anarchic way: (oh, okay, that's just me).

I remember learning about the Peterloo Massacre in A-level history. On 16 August 1819, - a hundred and sixty-one years to the day before the day that I got married, incidentally - a big crowd of 80,000 had come to Peterloo to listen to the orator Henry Hunt. Sixty yeoman cavalrymen charged at the crowd, for no good reason as it was a peaceful demonstration, and many people were killed - and far many more were injured. Many of those present had fought at Waterloo so the Peterloo name made a good parallel.

One of those inglorious episodes in British history that we tend not to remember.

Pies and Prejudice is excellent. I've heard Stuart Maconie on the radio but didn't know that he is such a good writer: The Times's description of him on the cover as "effortlessly articulate" is entirely accurate. He was born in Lancashire and, in this book, sets off on a Bill Bryson-like tour of the North of England, with witty, well-written and interesting results. I haven't finished reading it yet and am enjoying every page.

But I can't tag people: I would feel as though I were pressurising them to do something. And yet I was perfectly happy when Siegfried tagged me. So there you have it: a bit of history, a good book and an insight into Daphne's ground-level over-reticence - which has oft been pointed out to me - all in one blog post.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Blogging All Over the World

There are lots and lots of blogs out there, of course: here are two new ones which I'd like to mention:

Pixie's Ponderings, written by Debby who is currently to be found in Sebring, Florida, and who doesn't like being greeted by a Wal-Mart greeter and I don't blame her:

and Compost your Billet, written by my friend Christine in New Zealand - we've been friends since the mid-1970s, and she's about to visit Europe again soon. You may, perhaps, be wondering what the strange title of her blog means. When you're in France - and possibly other French-speaking places too, I know not - there are signs at railway stations which say "Compostez Votre Billet". What this means is "put your ticket in the machine which will stamp it".

Quite why this must be, I have never worked out: they check your ticket on the train anyway so what the point of all this composting is I don't know.

Anyway, I hope that Debby and Christine will enjoy blogging as much as I do and I look forward to reading what they write.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Outing at the Theatre

An exciting new venture by the deeply, deeply stupid Arts Council is an addition to the form for theatre companies applying for grants.

They are being asked to state on the form how many board members are bisexual, homosexual, heterosexual or whose inclinations are "not known". Presumably "not known" is Arts-Council-speak for someone who, quite sensibly, writes "fuck off and mind your own business".

Why has the Arts Council done this? Because they're intrusive politically-correct gits who shouldn't be left in charge of anything at all?

No, apparently because "We see diversity as broader than race, ethnicity, faith and disability".

Sir Ian McKellen, who is a Good Thing and who was jolly kind to me when I was a stage-struck teenager, commented, "It shouldn't be on a form. It's quite inappropriate."

Of course, he's gay, and a lot of gay people work in the theatre, after all.

And, d'you know what, a lot of gay people work in everything else too. And it's none of anyone's damned business, including the Arts Council's.

Now then, we have to remember that this is the same group of idiots - can you tell that I really feel quite strongly about this? - who axed the funding to the excellent Compass Theatre Company.

Poor old Compass made the fundamental error of putting on plays that people might actually want to see. And no, they weren't of the Crikey Vicar Where Are My Trousers? kind, and they weren't of the Naughty Girls on a Hen Night kind either. They were just good, well-acted, well-directed plays, done with wit and flair: their adaptation of Dickens' Hard Times was one that I really enjoyed.

But, in the world of the moronic fools of the Arts Council - now don't hang back, Daphne, tell it like you see it - any new play, no matter how totally and utterly shite from the deepest dunghill of deadly drama, is better than any tried-and-tested play. So any new play, therefore, is more deserving of funding, no matter how thick and useless the company that puts it on (really, if I get one millimole more angry I'll be naming names, oh yes).

And if the board of the company are gay, or bisexual, or have a less than usual interest in penguins, then so much the better - it ticks a few more boxes of Political Correctness and all the dickheads at the Arts Council can sleep more soundly in their beds, knowing they have made a true and valid contribution to British culture.

It's offensive to us all in equal measure, whether we're straight, gay, transvestite, transexual or from Transylvania - ah - ah -ah. Sorry, went a bit Rocky Horror Show there.

So here's my Cunning Plan for all theatre companies applying for grants. It's called the "I Am Spartacus" Plan. Let's tell them that every single member of the board and that every single member of the cast of every play is a one-legged gay black Druid. That way all grant applications will be successful. Let's bleed the bastards dry.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Too Sweet

One of the roles I have played in my work to help train medical students and other healthcare professionals, is a diabetic mature student, whom I'll call Sue. (She has to be mature, because she's played by me).

Sue's a bit younger than I am though. She has Type 1 diabetes, the type where your body doesn't produce any insulin. Having lived at home with her parents all her life, she's finally gone off to university and thought to herself "Hurrah! Freedom!"

So she's stopped checking her blood sugar and started having a lot of fun, which to her means late nights and lots of alcohol.

Having fallen over and hurt her ankle on one of these late nights, she turns up at the Student Health service and the medical professional has the tricky job of persuading her that, although she may have left her home town and her parents behind, she hasn't left her diabetes behind, and unless she does something about it, she's putting herself in danger of terrible complications in later life - blindness, for example, and amputation of legs.

"All very well," says Sue, "but I'm fed up of this flaming diabetes. I've had it since I was a teenager, and now I want a break from it."

Hmm. I can see where she's coming from. I am a Type 2 diabetic, which means either my body doesn't produce enough insulin, or is resistant to the insulin that it does produce.

I take my tablets, morning and night. Firstly I was on Metformin, which made me feel thoroughly sick all the time, so the tablets were changed to Gliclazide, which made me incredibly hungry all the time, and since putting on weight is bad for diabetics, I asked if there was anything else that I could try, and the doctor suggested slow-release Metformin, which should make me feel less sick. And it does, in general - though I still feel thoroughly queasy from time to time. I'm really rather used to it though - if I forget to take a tablet, I can generally tell from the fact that suddenly I don't have this low-level nausea.

I don't drink alcohol, which can mess up the blood-sugar levels. And, apart from very occasionally, I don't eat sweets, chocolate, cake - - anything like that. Really, apart from occasional - and they are occasional - lapses, I am very well-behaved with the sodding thing.

But I've never found a happy medium with checking my blood sugar with the finger-pricking device. I've been through periods of getting totally obsessed with it - - let's check it before breakfast - - after breakfast - - before lunch - - enough! So I told this to some doctor and he said just check it twice a week. Before meals? After meals? - - He didn't say, or not in any way that I could understand, anyway. (We have some way to go in teaching doctors Communication Skills, clearly).

Today I had a bowl of Shreddies for breakfast and then a bread roll with peanut butter at lunchtime and I haven't eaten anything since, so I thought I'd check my blood sugar, and looked in my little notebook, and found I haven't checked it since mid-January - - - oops!

Don't let anyone tell you that stabbing your finger, even with a fine needle, doesn't hurt. I fire the little gun that the needle lives in and then find myself going "Ow!" - - even though I knew it was going to happen!

Eight point three. Too high, considering that I haven't eaten much today. It should be between four and seven before meals, and below ten two hours after a meal.

(Eight point three what? - - No, they don't tell you these things. It could be furlongs per fortnight for all I know).

So I suppose I'd better check it a few more times to see what it's getting up to and then, if necessary, go back to the doctor. I'm bored even thinking about it.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Learning the Time

I'm trying to learn what time it is.

Now this is not easy, because the time keeps changing, and anyway the clocks went forward and confused me.

But I usually have a reasonably good idea of what time it is, and from time to time I practise this a bit to see if I can get it right.

Usually, if it's the kind of day when I'm working, which it often is, then my guesses are pretty near: I'm ususally about five or ten minutes fast.

If it's the kind of day when time doesn't matter - which it rarely is, on a weekday - then I tend to lose track a bit but can usually get it to the nearest half-hour.

But, of course, I don't know how I do it.

If I'm asleep, I can do it perfectly. If I set the alarm for, say, half-past seven, and I know I must get up then, then I will wake up promptly at twenty-five past (still five minutes fast, I notice). I have always been able to do that thing where you bang your head on the pillow six times to wake up at six o'clock. I can generally do it just by thinking "six o'clock" to myself very firmly.

However, my subconscious seems to know if I really have to get up then, or if I'm just thinking hey, I'd better get up early and do some dusting. My subconscious doesn't care about dusting. It just says no. It keeps me asleep. If I don't really have to get up - just feel that I should get up - I will sleep through any alarm.

I do wonder where I get this sense of the time from. I suppose everyone has it, to a greater or lesser extent. I'm not sure whether it can be improved by practising, because I'm not sure how I judge it in the first place. Does anyone know?