Saturday, November 29, 2008

Bald Eagles and Rockets

Today, on a tour, I saw some great wildlife:

Lots of alligators including this one:

Two bald eagles at their nest:

Plus four armadillos, dolphins swimming in a blue, tranquil sea, pelicans both brown and white, ibis, egrets, wild boar, vultures, many different species of sea birds - - and a very brief glimpse of a manatee as its back broke the surface of the water.

But the really amazing thing was that I saw all this in passing. What I had come to see was this kind of thing:

Launch Pad 39B, from where the Apollo missions to the moon were launched, plus some of the much more recent Space Shuttles.

Yes, I was at the Kennedy Space Center, which is set amongst a vast acreage of wildlife sanctuary.

Now then. I have always been fascinated by space travel and, on the other hand, always wanted to be David Attenborough.

Can you guess that I had a Grand Day Out of almost unbelievable Grandness? Stephen thrilled to all the electronicky bits ("I used to buy those second-hand when I was a teenager!") Silverback, who has been there more than once before, watched our open mouths with great patience.

The tickets last for two days and we're going back tomorrow, because you can't see it all in one day.

I'll leave you with some rockets in the sunset.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Space Rockets and Corner Shops

We're in Cape Canaveral tonight, (and I've never been able to write THAT before!) in preparation for the next couple of days at the Kennedy Space Centre - or Center as they tend to spell it round here.

I can't remember a time when I wasn't interested in space travel - after all, the Apollo missions took place during my teenage years, so how could I not be? So visiting the Kennedy Space Center has long been an impossible dream of mine - and tomorrow I'll be there. At the moment we're in a hotel with a space-suit in the foyer, which is encouraging.

But today, as we drove North past signs that said amazing things like Daytona Beach, Silverback asked me if I'm blase about all the signs along the road yet.

Big signs for everything from hospitals to restaurant chains to family businesses, all along the roads for miles and miles - and then agricultural land, with an interesting mixture of palm trees, cypresses, conifers and many other trees and shrubs that I can't identify at all. Considering that Florida is so flat, I wasn't expecting the countryside to be so pretty but, especially in the evening sunlight as we drove up to Titusville, the colours were beautiful.

But to answer Silverback's question, no, I'm not blase yet - every half an hour I think, with a sudden jolt as we pass a mall or a Taco Bell restaurant or something worded in a particularly American way - - hey, I'm in America!

It has a somewhat strange effect of making me remember how things used to be. Because when I was a child, there were no malls - - no shopping centres, no supermarkets. England was a land of corner shops.

There were lots round our way, and we called them by the surname of the owners. To the end of the road and turn right and you would reach Caldron's in about a hundred yards. Caldron's was a grocer's and sold tinned food, flour, sugar, cereal - - and cooked ham, which would be cut on request with a large meat slicer.

The first time I went to that corner on my own was on New Year's Day 1964 - the shop was closed of course but I felt proud to have reached it all by myself. I felt suffused with new-found independence and thrilled at the thought of the new year to come. I knew I'd always remember the moment, and I have.

To the end of the road and turn left and you'd get to the nearest thing to a supermarket that we had - another grocer's known as The Thrift, where you did the unusual thing of wandering round and helping yourself to goods which you put in a basket.

Next to The Thrift was the butcher's - a proper butcher with a bloodstained apron. I would often be sent there for pork chops or some meat for our dog.

And across the road was Perrin's the greengrocer's. Mr Perrin was always cheerful and I've found that to be true of most greengrocers since. Sometimes my mother would ring him with an order and a boy on a bike would cycle round with a basket full of carrots and apples and cauliflowers.

Across the road in the other direction from Perrin's was the Post Office. And across the road from that was another little grocer's, Beevors, but my mother didn't like that shop because he tended to serve customers in whatever order he felt like, disregarding the queue.

Just up the road was Jones the draper's, and then you got to what was known as The Parade, where there was yet another- though inferior - butcher, and another post office, and Turnbull's the bakers (their Yorkshire curd tart has never been bettered in my experience) and another greengrocer's.

All these little shops within a few hundred yards of our house!

Of course, I still live in the same house as I did then: what has happened to all these shops?

All the corner shops have closed, without exception, and have been turned into houses with strangely large plate-glass windows in the front.

The Thrift has gone: both butchers: all the grocers. The Post Office on the corner has gone. The other one, on the Parade, remains, and is now Bhogal's. It has taken over the old baker's shop next door and, ironically, has become a little grocer's as well as a newsagent and post office.

In my childhood, certainly, Britain definitely seemed to be the famous "nation of shopkeepers"and it's strange that the very, very different American shopping experience of malls and supermarkets should make me think of that time, when we took the idea of shopping in lots of small shops completely for granted. We thought it would always be that way. We were wrong.

And here I am in a hotel room in Cape Canaveral, thinking about a few streets - four thousand miles away! - that have played such a big part in my life.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


Here are three stripes of colour: blue, blue and white:

Blue sky, blue sea, white sand.

In the distance you can see the huge Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

I like these three colours anyway: the combination here was magical.

Another day in Paradise!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

St Petersburg - but Not the One with Fur Hats

"We're in St Petersburg, Dad," I said to him, "but not the one that you've been to."

The Communist went on a tour of the Soviet Union in the days when it was the Soviet Union, and when St Petersburg was Leningrad.

This St Petersburg, the Florida one, was somewhat warmer and sunnier. The Communist had heard of this one, too, though.

"Are you going in the sea?" he asked, knowing my likely behaviour when presented with any beach.

"Oh yes, as soon as I've finished talking to you." It was strange, standing there on the beach, talking on my mobile to him in his nursing-home in Leeds.

"Is it safe? Are there other people in?"

"Oh yes, lots."

I lied. There was nobody at all in the sea, just the pelicans and a few gulls. Don't know why as it was a glorious day and the sea was warmer than any in Britain. But it was a public beach, clearly intended for swimming, so in I went whilst Silverback and Stephen patiently waited for me on the beach.

I didn't tell the Communist about the notice to shuffle rather than step in the sea, to avoid treading on sting rays. It never pays to start thinking about what else is in the sea when swimming, or your brain gets on to that film Jaws, and that way madness lies.

Anyway, it was three quarters of an hour of bliss, with big breakers to play in and to swim in and out of.

Here's the view from our hotel balcony in Clearwater this morning - a different beach, North Redington Beach, but they all look much like this round here:

To those who spend a lot of time in Florida, Silverback included of course, it's cooler than it often is: but to me it's so much warmer and sunnier than the average British summer - especially this year's - that I find it really incongruous when I find Christmas decorations everywhere, or little Christmassy touches like this festive giraffe, in the hotel where we are now, in St Petersburg:

I'll finish for now with just one of the many photos I took of last night's sunset, which threw up so many beautiful blues and golds it was like a mediaeval painting appearing in the sky. Silverback had said that a few clouds in the sky would make the sunset look even better, and he was most certainly correct!

Sunset over the Gulf of Mexico. And I saw it. By heck, I'm a long way from home. Awesome, as they say round here.

Clear Water With Pelicans

The small river that runs down the side of Buttonwood Bay, winter home of Silverback and his friends, looks in many ways like a British river -- boats moored along its banks, pretty greenery, duckweed and indeed ducks.

The trees are mostly conifers  - - and palm trees, which give a bit of a clue to the fact that Florida is rather warmer than I'm used to.

If you look carefully in the bright sunshine whilst walking along the bank, you can spot the occasional greenish log on the other side of the river, and the occasional upturned German helmet in the water.

The German helmets are turtles.  The greenish logs are alligators.  We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto.  Okay, we're not in the Yorkshire Dales either.

Today, after a delightful couple of days enjoying the hospitality of Silverback and his friends, we set off with Silverback for a couple of days on the west coast of Florida.

We found a lovely beach called Sand Keys at Clearwater - white sand, blue sea, palm trees and a great little building with changing cubicles.  Now after years of swimming on beaches with no such changing rooms, I have perfected the art of changing from Fully Dressed to Swimsuit without revealing an inch of flesh and my Under Towel Wriggle is second to none.  Nevertheless it was great to have a changing room, and showers too.

So out I went across the white sand and into the blue sea which was warm enough to walk straight into.  Now I was brought up to swim in the Lake District in April so no cold sea deters me - - but wow, this was great.  Clearwater lived up to its name - beautiful clean sea and as it is November, after all, not too many people swimming.

Just when I thought it couldn't get any better I heard a loud splash nearby and a huge pelican surfaced and swallowed a fish, followed by many others.  They were so near I felt I could almost touch them - I didn't try, mind.  I have never seen a pelican so close up, and was really grateful for my prescription goggles so I could see them properly.

Swimming in a perfect sea watching pelicans fishing nearby.  I've been lucky enough to visit some great places this year but I think this was, perhaps, the single occasion I enjoyed the most.

I can't post photographs as I'm typing this on Silverback's computer, which he has kindly lent me, but I hope to show you some soon.  I know that when I get back to Blighty I'll be wondering if I was really here, so it's good to have the evidence.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Getting In

"Do you have, or have you ever had, a father who is a member of the Communist Party? And do you by any chance write a blog with the word Communist in the title?"

No, the big bearded man at American Immigration didn't ask me that. But what he did ask me was "What is your job?"

The flight over to Orlando was fine - I had never been on such a big plane before, and liked the larger space. But there were many, many children on board, presumably heading for Disneyland. Fine for the older ones, perhaps, but I did wonder why many parents seemed to think it was a good idea to take a two-year-old on a nine-and-a-half hour flight. Two- year-olds like to run around a lot. And if they get tired they get very grizzly. And finally they yell a lot. Dozens of them. Lovely.

Anyway, back to Big Bearded Immigration Man.

I wasn't sure what to reply to his enquiry about my job, because sometimes when you say the words "Actors' agent" it frightens people and they think you spend all your time with hell-raising Oliver Reed types, which is really not the case. And since Bearded Man had the power to send me straight back to the UK, I didn't want to annoy him.

So I bought a bit of time by saying "Well, I have two jobs. I help to teach communication skills to medical students - - "

"In a university?"


I could see that he liked this so I pressed home my advantage.

"And I have another job as an actors' agent."

"So what's that?"

"I try to get actors work."

Showbiz! I could tell he really, REALLY liked this. But for some reason he couldn't understand the difference between actors and singers.

"Elton John?" he asked.

"Well, no, he's a singer. I work with actors who work in theatre and television."

Good answer, Daphne, I ccould tell. And now he was really on a roll and wanted to show me his knowledge of British Famous People.

"Could you put all four fingers on this machine for fingerprints? How about Take That?"

"No, I don't know them but they're very famous."

"Okay, well how about Cliff Richard then? Both your thumbs please."

"Yes, I don't know him but he's really famous too."

"I'm taking your photo now. Tom Jones? He must be really old by now."

"Well he is quite old but he's still making records. His son looks old too now."

"Still making records? That's amazing! He's been around for years, hasn't he? Thank you very much, I'm all done now."

Of all the possible conversations I had thought I might have with American Immigration, I wasn't expecting to have this one.

"Welcome to America."

And there we were, in Florida. We collected our hire car - a stylish but rather impractical red Ford Mustang - and then drove off into the night to our happy rendezvous with Silverback and his friends.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Nine Hundred and Ninety-Nine

I started this blog on Wednesday, March 29th 2006, with a story about how my friend and I tried to prevent the school hedge being cut down, and sadly failed because the headmistress wouldn't listen to us.

This post is number nine hundred and ninety-nine.

"I'll start this blog today," I thought on Wednesday, March 29th 2006, "and make damned sure that the thousandth post comes from America."

Actually, you know jolly well I didn't think that: in those days I never thought I'd get to America. But the thousandth post will, indeed, come from there. Amazing, eh?

Tomorrow we'll be in Florida, with Silverback and his friends: and, of course, I met him through this blog.

Funny how things turn out. It's been a tricky couple of years for me in many ways, and this blog and its readers have meant a lot to me. Thank you so much, everyone, and please keep reading. Post number one thousand will follow as soon as possible, from Florida.

Praise for Britain's Railways, Shock!

"So," thought my mother, "why should I be left at home whilst everyone goes away?"

And it so happened that one of our actors, and friend, Sonia Beck is playing Lady Macbeth in a tour of Wales at the moment.

Her husband Adrian Metcalfe, also a friend, is playing Macbeth. It's not the jolliest of plays and, in a glorious mismatch of play and venue, they are performing it at the De Valence Pavilion in Tenby, in South Wales tonight: a venue which is really more suited to comedy and musicals.

So my mother decided that she would go to Tenby to see it, and spend a few days at our beloved Park Hotel which we've been visiting for over forty years.

She's coming back on Monday to have a few days to get ready before my brother Michael collects her and takes her to Amsterdam for a few days.

But although she's very fit, she is eighty four and a half, and had a stroke when she was sixty-eight and, although she's made a near-miraculous recovery, she's rather deaf and no good with numbers.

So this makes travelling by train, on her own, a bit fraught with difficulty. And from Leeds to Tenby requires two changes, with not much time to do them in.

Stephen took my mother to book the ticket at Leeds Station. The woman behind the counter looked at my mother, who is tiny and slim.

"Would she like some help on the way?" she asked.

She filled in a form with all Mum's trains on it. And at every station, someone met her, took her to her next train and carried her luggage. She loved it!

The journey - two hundred and fifty miles - took about seven hours but she arrived just in time for dinner and found to her delight that there was a dance in the hotel that night, and a big coach party who liked dancing.

She rang me at half-past eleven, having danced every dance and had a wonderful evening. This morning she's gone down the cliff path for a walk on the beach. I made her promise not to swim in the sea, so this afternoon she's off to find the public swimming-pool.

The Communist, in contrast, is stuck in the nursing-home, though taking it all with remarkable stoicism.

"Your mother seems to be having a good time. Will you ring me when you get to America?" he said when I visited him this morning.

"Yes, Dad, of course I will." Of course, he can hardly go anywhere now and I felt terrible: though I think he was proud of my mother's globe-trotting.

Anyway, Britain's railways, in general, get a lot of well-deserved stick for their lateness and general unpleasantness. But yesterday, for my mother, they really turned up trumps.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Kitten Update

Here's another picture of Wendy the Kitten, now aged nearly seventeen weeks.

Some kittens are nervous and run away to hide when confronted with anything new.

Wendy is not one of them. She is supremely confident about everything: new places to explore, new people, loud noises, heights - - - nothing fazes her. She's like one of those cheetah cubs on a wildlife programme that stands up to a lion.

Loooong Day

Some days seem longer than others and today has been a loooooong one.

It started with a meeting at 9am at Leeds University about some roleplay that I'm doing on 10th December. Will I still be able to do medical roleplay whilst jetlagged? I think Leeds is about to find out.

(If you've never read this blog before, or have somehow blotted my forthcoming trip from your mind, I am going to just mention, very quickly, that I am going to Florida on Friday.)

After the meeting I had not enough time to go home again, before setting off to Bradford for a roleplay there this afternoon.

So I wandered through a couple of department stores in Leeds.

I haven't given any thought at all to Christmas yet so was surprised to hear Slade's Merry Christmas Everybody and be immediately transported back to Leeds Grammar School Christmas Discotheque in 1973.

I found some new slippers, and then had to stand in the long queue to pay for them. I listened with mounting lack of interest as the assistant asked every customer whether they'd like to get ten percent off their shopping today by opening a storecard, and then followed it up by asking if they'd like to buy one of these cuddly teddies or dogs.

So when I got there I greeted her with "I'd like to buy these slippers please, and I don't want to get ten percent off my shopping today by opening a storecard, and neither do I want to buy any of these cuddly toys."

She looked at me as though I was completely insane. Surely, though, for every customer who opens a storecard or buys a cuddly toy, there must be three more who think "I'm never going back there?"

The checkout was next to the women's nightwear section and I found myself idly wondering why women's nightwear comes in three distinct categories:

1) Red Light District Special
2) Cute Slogan - - - "Goodnight Sleep Tight" and that kind of thing
3) Very Very Old Lady Who Likes Winceyette and Florals

(No, I'm not telling you which I bought, if any).

So off I went to Bradford, where the roleplay went well, and then my satnav was as confused by the centre of Bradford as I am, and insisted that I turn my car left up an alleyway about an inch wide. I ignored the satnav's advice, invented my own way back and arrived home after only an hour or so in nose-to-tail traffic in the dark and drizzle.

Yorkshire, I still love you. But not on evenings like this.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bringing Back the Balusters

Once upon a time, in our house, there was a rather lovely Victorian staircase, which went up one flight and then had a much smaller flight at the top, so the banisters curved round rather beautifully.

And then, in 1965, the Communist decided to board it in, to make it modern, and because he thought my little brother might stick his head through the spindles: which are more properly called balusters, so our carpenter, who goes by the name of Nails McFugger, told us.

In those days I was Very Small Indeed but hated all this boarding-in with a great hatred. And once my parents had added a 1977-vintage carpet, and some rather well-worn decor, it all looked like this:

Lovely! Not.

So when it came to be time to redecorate - - oh, okay, about twenty years after it came to be time to redecorate when we finally got round to it - - we decided to Bring Back the Balusters, with the invaluable help of the carpenter known as Nails McFugger, close friend and remarkable lookalike of the artist and film-maker known as John Coombes.

Froggie the cat helped as much as she could, which I have to say wasn't much.

There were some balusters missing. My memory told me that they had all been removed, so I was surprised when some were found under the boarding. But my memory was partly right - some had been removed, for no good reason other than to be rather annoying forty-three years later.

But Nails found a close match for the missing ones, and also replaced what's called the string, which is the curvy bits at the edge of the staircase.

If you want to know more about such curvy bits - and who wouldn't? - you can learn everything you might ever need to know about different parts of a staircase here.

And Mr McFugger replaced the balls on the newel posts.

I remember the old ones with great affection because I used to slide down those banisters as soon as my parents were out of sight, and the ball at the bottom saved me from landing in a heap in the hall on many an occasion.

And here's looking from the top of the first flight downwards. If you look carefully you can see Mr McFugger himself working away in the hall.

And here's the landing:

Not quite finished yet, but Mr McFugger will return to complete it when we get back from Florida (did I mention that we're going to Florida on Friday? Woooohoooo!!!! - - sorry, got a bit distracted there) and then it will be painted.

It already looks a million times better. Thank you, Mr McFugger. I've waited over forty years for this and it's going to be good.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Two Things Done Well - - and one Could Do Better

"So, what did you do well?"

As you know, I take part in roleplay to help to train healthcare professionals - doctors, nurses, pharmacists, physiotherapists - - many different professions. At the end of the roleplay, the facilitator will ask this question of the student who's been doing the interview. The reply is usually something like this:

"Oh, I don't know - - I don't think I was very good - - well, I think I introduced myself well - - but after that - - I should have asked better questions."

"No, let's think about what you did well, first of all."

People - perhaps British people, especially - are very bad at describing what they're good at. So, at the end of the session, after their skills have been discussed, and after the things that they could improve on have been discussed too, the facilitator often asks the student to name two things that they can do really well, and one thing that they can improve on.

Since I'm leaving Britain on Friday for two weeks to visit America (and even as I type it I don't believe it yet) I'm going to ask that question of Britain.

Two things you do really well, please, Britain, and one that could be improved.

Well, here are mine:

The first thing that Britain does well is scenery. For such a comparatively small island there is such a range of different kinds of scenery. Rolling hills, mountains, green valleys, coastal cliffs, beautiful beaches. I love Britain's landscape, absolutely love it. I'll allow myself to choose just one photograph of the hundreds and hundreds that I have taken and for some reason I keep thinking of this one, which I took on the Cleveland Way near Sutton Bank in North Yorkshire, one glorious Spring day.

I know that books about photography say that you should take landscape photos in the early morning or at dusk - well, yes, perhaps - - but, for me, this one, taken in the middle of the day, sums up a day in the British countryside - I just want to walk straight ahead into the photograph and keep on walking.

The second thing that I think Britain does well is history, of course. There are many things in our history that we should be thoroughly ashamed of - but if you love old buildings, and a sense of the passage of time, and everything from prehistoric monuments to stately homes, then Britain is a place where you can find enough to visit somewhere different every day, for all your life, and I love that.

And a Could Do Better. There are many, of course, but for me, a crucial one is litter. I hate the filth that we leave on our streets - I hate the fact that we almost seem to accept it. Of course, we don't spend nearly enough on clearing it up, true - - but if nobody dropped litter, we wouldn't need to.

I see litter as a sign that we're demoralised, that we don't care enough about our country, and I think that's a terrible shame. When I go to other countries and see their clean streets I wince when I think what foreigners must think of us.

So, two Very Goods and one Could Do Better. It's sad that it tends to be the Could Do Betters that stick in people's minds.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Get Out of My Clown

The first comment that my good friend Silverback left on this blog was on June 20, 2006, and it was about Desmond Dekker and his iconic song Me Ears are Alight.

Okay, if you're too young to remember, it's really called The Israelites. You can read my original piece, here, and Silverback's comment too. Although he only lives a couple of miles from me when he's in Leeds, we'd never met of course - and we didn't meet until well over a year after he left this comment - - and on Friday we're going to Florida to see him, and to meet his friends, and to see something of Florida - -- - - amazing, the internet, eh?

Anyway, it's a great song, and in the far-off days of 2006 when the internet was powered by steam, I didn't know how to post videos. So let's have a listen, shall we? Great outfit, by the way, Mr Dekker!

Of course, with this song I did know the real title - it just amuses me to hear it as Me Ears Are Alight.

However, I heard something on the radio yesterday that was a bit of a revelation.

They played an early Rolling Stones song - - from 1965, the follow-up to (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction
(and don't you just hate it when they put half of a song title in brackets like that? Terrible thing, the over-use of brackets).

Anyway, I'd always thought it was called Get Out of My Clown. I didn't know what this title meant, but then I don't know what a lot of song titles mean.

And yesterday, the man on the radio told me it's called Get Off Of My Cloud.

So I found a video to check and I still prefer my version. "Off of?" What kind of grammatical construction is that, Mick?

Anyway, here's a very young Mr Jagger singing Get Out of My Clown.

Another great song! Me ears are alight just listening to it.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


My grandma's hair, as she never tired of telling everyone, was golden.

It didn't go grey either - just stayed the same colour until she died, age 93, in 1991.

The colour, however, was not golden. It was ginger. Well, that's what we thought, anyway. A rather pale kind of a ginger, not the bright carroty kind, but ginger nevertheless.

She wouldn't have it though. In her old age all kinds of nurses and so on would wind her up something rotten, without meaning to.

"How lovely that you've still got your ginger hair, dear!"

"It's not ginger. It's golden."

"Are you sure? It looks ginger to me."

"GOLDEN." She was only four feet ten, with size one and a half feet, my grandma, but really very much on the assertive side, so if she told you her hair was golden, you stayed told, if you knew what was good for you.

My hair's never been golden. Or ginger, come to that. It used to be blonde when I was little and then got darker. However, like my grandmother's, and like my mother's, it hasn't much grey in it at all - just a tiny little bit round the edges. But I don't like any grey, so the hairdresser dyes it as near as possible to its natural colour. My mother thinks that this is cheating and can't understand why anyone would dye their hair and always tells me this.

"Oh NO! You've dyed your hair! AGAIN!"

So, off I went back to the hairdresser, where the main excitement of the day was that her daughter was having her first driving lesson today. She explained, in her usual way, that you don't want to go to one of those big driving schools that insist on you having lots of lessons.

"It's better to just have a few, then you can absorb it all in between."

She paused for a moment.

"Mind you, if you have lots of lessons you do tend to pass your test."

I tried to read my book but no luck.

"You look tired, today, Anne." Sometimes she calls me Brenda and sometimes Anne. Today was an Anne day, which I think I marginally prefer.

"Yes, I am rather tired."

I know that "tired" is hairdresser-speak for "You look about a hundred and ninety-three."

"It's reading makes you tired. Don't read, that's my advice. I can only read for two or three pages and then I fall asleep. I don't even wear my glasses for most of the time, so I can't read anyway. You should stop reading."

"Well, no, actually, I like reading. I think it's work that makes me tired."

"You need a break. You should go shopping and buy some new clothes. Go to town, you'd enjoy that."

I know that "You should go shopping and buy some new clothes" is hairdresser-speak for "What on earth are those strange garments that you are wearing?"

But I had to say something and what I said was - foolishly -

"I don't like shopping for clothes and I don't often go to town. I buy as much as I can on the internet."

"Oh, you don't want to do that. It's dangerous. They just steal your money, on the internet. And it just makes you lazy, shopping on the internet. You don't get the exercise of walking round the shops."

I wasn't going to get into this discussion. I smiled nicely and returned to my book.

A little while later, it was time to wash my hair, and, for the first time, I looked up.

"Oh," said the hairdresser, "that's not your usual colour, is it?"

No, no, it wasn't.

Tracing back what had happened, it became apparent that the hairdresser, not wearing her glasses, had picked up what she thought was a tube colour 66 and it was actually 636.

Golden, my hair is now. Exactly the same kind of golden as my grandma's used to be.

When, on Friday, I fly across the Atlantic, America will be able to see me coming, all right.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Counting Down

In a week's time, I'll be on the plane on the way to Florida.

That probably doesn't mean as much to you as it does to me: probably everyone reading this blog will have travelled more than I have done.

But I have never been to America. I've travelled more this year than I've ever travelled in my life, with four trips to Paris and one to Barcelona, and a good deal of travelling within Britain too, all of it very enjoyable.

But I have never been to America. And I never thought I'd ever get there.

Here's one of the pieces of music that first meant America to me, from the film Midnight Cowboy, still one of my favourite films. Hauntingly evocative, and I still love it.

They're counting down this evening to the launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour and I'm keeping an eye on NASA TV as I'm writing this.

"This is Mission Control, Houston." Does it for me every time.

I'm counting down too, to next Friday.

Touring England in the Olden Days

Two of our actors were at the railway station in Totnes, Devon, where they had been working, trying to get to Bath for the next day's work.

We have a huge number of days' work going on around the country at the moment - about 350 days of it - and one of my jobs is to work out which actors do which days.

Luckily, when I was a child I had a board game called Touring England. Each player picked a number of cards from a pile - ten, I think - and each card had the name of a town on it. Then, setting off from your home town, you had to work out the best way to visit each town and then come back home. You had to throw a dice and moved your counter around the map of England, dot by dot, until you had completed the circuit and the first one back won.

Brilliantly simple, it was. "An entirely new and up-to-date Map Game" it said on the cover. "Requiring skill and judgment" and, further, "EXCITING INTERESTING EDUCATIVE"

Oh, all right then, I'll show you if you promise not to make any comments about how old it looks.

Enough! I said NO comments, thank you! Just remember I was Very Small Indeed when I used to play this, okay?

Anyway, I loved it. Here's what the board looked like:

All right, I know there aren't any motorways. They hadn't been built yet, okay? And there's another tiny flaw: look at this:

You see that bit that sticks out on the left in the middle? That's a country known as WALES which has somehow entirely been omitted from the title of the game. As you will see if you look back at the cover - no, don't make any more pithy comments about how old it looks whilst you're doing it, thank you - the title should surely be "TOURING ENGLAND AND WALES".

But EDUCATIVE it was. Because it taught me where all the towns are. And then, years later, when I needed to plan some work in lots of different towns for actors, I could still remember where they were without having to look at a nasty modern map with lots more clutter on, and this was very helpful.

So, back to the two actors who were, you may remember, trying to get from Totnes, where they had been working, to Bath, where they were about to work. Which should have been quite easy, according to Touring England, with both those places being in the South-West and all.

They rang the bed-and-breakfast that they were booked into, to say they'd be arriving at about half past eight.

"Hmm, said B and B Man grumpily, "our check-in desk closes at eight o'clock."

Our actor - let us call him Julian, for that is indeed his name - managed to sweet-talk Mr Grumpy - that isn't his name but if I knew it I would tell you - into letting them check in at half-past eight, though he made it clear that this was way beyond the call of duty.

At this point Julian noticed that the other actor, whom we shall call Keir, because that is his name, was looking at him somewhat anxiously.

"Our train's just been cancelled," whispered Keir. "Don't tell him."

They arrived about nine, and after a bit of a struggle they did manage to gain admission to the bed and breakfast.

"What time would you like breakfast?" asked Mr Grumpy.

"Well, we need to leave here at eight, so half-past seven would be good."

"HALF PAST SEVEN? Oh, that's far too early to have a cooked breakfast. I'll have to leave you something cold."

In the bed and breakfast was a little notice pointing out that guests who were staying more than one night are not permitted to enter the premises between the hours of ten in the morning and five in the afternoon.

Ah, Britain! "The-Customer-is-Always-Wrong" land of stale sandwiches, which I remember so vividly from my childhood too. Some things never change.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Looking Forward to 2012

Sadly, because of the imminent recession, the money has run out for Britain's 2012 Olympic Stadium and Village and so it's having to be done on a budget. Here's the swimming pool and athletes' accommodation.

Make Do and Mend. Wartime Spirit. Makes you proud to be British. And bitter with twisted envy if you're not.

Still, it lives up to all the promise of Britain's Olympic logo. If you haven't yet been enchanted by it, see here. Top left, in case you thought it was just someone trying out their new pink highlighter pen.

(Okay, I actually took this photo on a site that was soon to be built on, very near to the Olympic Port in Barcelona - it was in sharp contrast to the smartness of the port. Note to political activists: the writing of No Obama in this particular part of Barcelona was never actually going to have much influence on the American election. And a good thing too.)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Living Statues

"When I grow up I want to be a Living Statue."

Who says that? I bet nobody ever did. And yet there they are, scattered over London and all down La Rambla in Barcelona too.

Here's a bit of local interest:

"Aah yes, just what I hoped to see when I came to Barcelona. I'll definitely give him some money."

And there was this one:

I'm not so sure what this one was about, except she'd decided upon a bigger bucket:

And lots of people seem to want their photos taken standing next to them:

and again:

Sometimes these statues have a lunch break and you see them chatting to each other and eating crisps, which doesn't seem right, somehow.

Of course, it's highly skilled, all this standing still - - just, er, not that interesting. And as a career choice, I think it sucks. All that putting paint on your face every morning. And all that not moving can't be good for you.

I suppose they brighten the place up a bit but after a while I got a bit bored. Oh, yes, another Living Statue. Hurrah.

I don't know where they come from, or how they decide to do it, or what. The only one I really liked - and the one I actually gave some money to - was this chap.

Because he did lots of amazing tricks with this football - amazing to me, anyway - balancing it on his head, spinning it - - all with tremendous control.

I suppose the thing about keeping still is that we all think we can do it, at least for a while. Whereas this kind of skill is more obvious. It has more of the Fun Factor and more of the Ooh, That's Clever factor. I think that, given the choice, I'd rather watch someone doing something than someone standing still.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Salt and Soot

"You used what?"

We always suspected the the Communist was not, in fact, born in 1923 as he has always claimed, but in fact considerably earlier, probably around the time of the Boer War.

He has always hated everything which he deemed "Victorian" - hence my current attempts to put back into this house just a little of the nineteenth-century character which he hated and did his best to eradicate.

To him, "Victoriana" was heavy, claustrophobic furniture and draperies and he wanted rid of it all as soon as possible, to be replaced with light, modern stuff.

However, when he starts reminiscing about his childhood - in the Leeds slums, at least the early part of it - it seems more eighteen-nineties than nineteen-twenties.

"Salt and soot was what we used. We didn't have toothpaste then."

And, of course, they wouldn't - it would be too expensive. I found out more than I'd ever wanted to know about toothpaste here.

Apparently you rubbed on salt and soot with a rag. Once, years ago, when we must have gone on about it rather a lot, he gave us a demonstration. I suppose the soot is abrasive and the salt is somewhat antiseptic - - and also, they had some of these to hand all the time.

Strange to think that the fresh clean feeling when you have just brushed your teeth is really very new to humanity - not much more than a century old, really. Everyone else - from Aristotle to Henry VIII to Jane Austen to Napoleon Bonaparte - was a stranger to minty toothpaste. Weird.

Anyway, when the Communist revisited this childhood pursuit, it made a fine old mess of the sink. I suspect we won't be going back to it.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Posh Perches

In my recent travels around two major European cities (ooh! Get her! I hear you cry) I found many large-scale sculptures celebrating the beauty and power of the human form, or something.

And they all had one thing in common. I invite you to bring your powers of artistic criticism to bear upon this important matter, and to work out what it is.

I shall give you two examples:

Here are an energetic couple in Paris, in the Place de la Concorde:

(and, by the way, I'm not sure what these two people are up to but if they weren't made of stone I think they'd probably be arrested).

In Barcelona, in one of the many wonderful squares, was this young piper:

Let's have a close-up, shall we?

Sculpture, eh? Coo.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Out of Season, Again

A couple of weeks ago, near the end of October, I wrote about the North Yorkshire seaside resort of Scarborough, out of season . Here's the kind of thing - the view of the empty Spa from inside it:

and some wild waves in North Bay: (you can click on any of these photos to enlarge them if you wish)

I've always liked places out of season, with fewer people and, generally, a slightly melancholy feel.

It was out of season in Barcelona too, though I'm not sure when exactly is in season - apparently a lot of places close in August, presumably because it's too hot.

Barcelona out of season looks slightly different from Scarborough. Here's the view from Miramar, looking over the city:

and here are some beach chairs:

and a beach cafe:

Again, I loved the lack of crowds - I selfishly think that, when I'm on a beach, the people there should be a) me and b) anyone I'm with and c) that's it.

But sorry, Barcelona, there's something about the blue skies that just doesn't cut it on the pleasing-melancholy front. Blue skies, for me, mean Cheerful.

I've never in my life travelled so much as I have this year. For many years my foreign travel consisted entirely of an annual trip camping in France with my family - and don't get me wrong, I loved that. But I've always wanted to travel more, and always thought I couldn't - since my early thirties anyway - because I've had a thrombosis in my leg, the famous DVT that the newspapers are always going on about, and it was a very bad one, undiagnosed for some weeks

(Me: "Aaargh aaargh this pain is unbearable - it's the worst pain I've ever had in my life aaargh aargh help me I can't stand it what's wrong with it?"
Young Doctor: "Er - - dunno. I'll come back on Thursday.")

until it became a pulmonary embolism and all hell broke loose.

But over the years my leg's got a lot better and, belatedly, I'm beginning to travel. And a week on Friday I'm going to Florida with Stephen, to visit our good friend Silverback, meet some of his friends in America, see something of Florida and see some blue skies.

Florida in winter, of course, will be in season, full of snowbirds - people who migrate down there for the winter from the colder North.

Much as I love the out-of-season-melancholy look, I thinkI'm most definitely prepared to trade it in for a couple of weeks of cheerful blue skies.

Saturday, November 08, 2008


Barceloneta is an old, quite small, quirky district of Barcelona, down by the port and with sea around much of it. It's a place of old, tall houses with washing drying on the balconies:

Sadly I couldn't get a photograph of the most interesting person I saw there: an old man with a wizened face, pushing a child's pushchair full of carrier bags. I thought he looked quirky enough the first time I saw him, but when I saw him again a couple of days later he looked even quirkier, as he was now wearing a kind of bishop's hat. Sadly my Catalan isn't up to "Why are you wearing that hat?"

In the market square in the middle of Barceloneta I found these, on a fish stall (no! really?)

All quite little, about four or five inches long, and all different kinds, and all looking at me reproachfully, especially the big darker-coloured one in the middle (I think it could be a Gurnard but didn't like to ask it).

I'm not generally good at fish. To me, the ideal piece of fish is cod, in batter, with chips. It's true that I do like some shellfish, such as mussels and cockles, and I do like shrimps sometimes. Everyone tells me that fresh tuna is good but I've never tried it because - er - I don't like the look of it raw, so I'd never cook it, and I generally prefer meat to fish, so I'd never order it in a restaurant.

And, especially, anything with its head on and its dead eyes glaring at me accusingly - - - ewww no!

Whilst I was gazing at these poor little fishlings in fascinated horror, a woman came and bought two kilograms of them, picking them out one by one and reserving her special pleasure for Bernard the Gurnard in the middle.

She handed over her money and off she went with a transparent plastic bag full of them in a slithery heap.

Now I know that really, if we're prepared to eat one species of a creature we should be happy to eat another.

My head says that's true: but the rest of me disagrees. I fear that, whatever wonderful local dish that woman had made from her Pick-n-Mix-Fish, I would not have been able to eat it.

Friday, November 07, 2008

On the Plane

So we left Barcelona and Antoni Gaudi's amazingly idiosyncratic architecture:

and went to the airport.

"Could one of the seats be a seat C, please?" asked Stephen. This is because that's on the right of the left-hand set of seats, and hence my right leg, which had a DVT years ago and tends to hurt, has a bit more room in the aisle.

The man smiled sweetly and helpfully and then handed us boarding cards for seats A and B. Oh well, I thought, it's not that long a flight, I can put up with it.

So Stephen sat in A by the window, I was in B in the middle - - but then Posh Lady turned up and sat in C, with lots of carrier bags of perfume and things from the duty-free and nowhere to put them. (Now then, why, when they're so fanatical about just one item of hand luggage, is it suddenly okay if it's bags of things bought in the airport shops? Just asking).

So all her carrier bags overflowed onto my feet rather, and I began to feel distinctly hemmed in.

She spent a while reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being which made me want to make a sarky remark about the unbearable squashedness of being in the middle, but I didn't, because I was brung up proper.

And then she got out the Financial Times, which is old-fashioned broadsheet size, ie huge. And she held the right-hand page with her right-hand, and opened it right out, two pages, and this meant that her left hand, holding the left-hand page, was somewhere two-thirds across me, so I could only just see my book which was Julie Walters' autobiography - I think Posh Woman thought it a bit plebby, but it's very interesting as a matter of fact.

Anyway, I am British, and nowhere in my education have I been taught how to say "Excuse me, but your newspaper is now almost completely covering me, and I feel I have been newspapered out of existence, but I'm still here, though rather squashed and somewhat claustrophobic."

I did think of starting to read bits out loud to Stephen: "Hey, guess what it says here in this Financial Times that's RIGHT ACROSS MY BODY?"

And then I thought of saying to her, "Excuse me, but could you turn back to that last page, because I couldn't quite read all of it - the left side was fine because it's RIGHT ACROSS MY BODY but the right side was a bit tricky. It's me here, Daphne, speaking from UNDER YOUR NEWSPAPER."

And then I thought of seizing her by the hair and stuffing her past Stephen and out through the plane window, bit by bit if necessary.

But I'm British, so I didn't do any of these things, just suffered in a martyred kind of a way.

On our flight to Florida (that's TWO WEEKS TODAY WOOOOOHOOOOO!) I have specifically requested an aisle seat, with the aisle on my right.

I'm telling you now, if that doesn't happen, and if I don't get my aisle seat, and if you happen to be sitting on my right and fancy covering me with your newspaper, then by the end of the flight I will have killed you. Dead. Probably using plastic cutlery, so it will take a while. I hope that's clear now.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Traffic, a Tram - - - and a sunset

Here's a rare image of some stationary Barcelona taxis. They all look like this - or rather they would if they stood still. Usually they are to be seen flashing past at Warp Factor Nine like large angry wasps.

Of course, there are strict rules - you know, red lights and such - which all traffic has to obey. Except taxis, it appears. And tourist buses. Oh, and any kind of motorbike or scooter. Hey, and pushbikes, which seem to go absolutely anywhere.

But I, of course, have had recent training in Paris traffic, and Barcelona is but a beginner compared to Paris. In Paris, pedestrians and traffic do constant battle with filthy looks and obscene gestures - though everyone seems to take it in good part, as if it's somehow expected.

So, with my best Parisian Insolent Stare I have seen off several taxi drivers who have hoped to drive through a light that's in my favour. Don't try it on the motorbikes, though, is my advice - you may have right on your side but you'll be just as dead as if you'd been wrong. Even Antoni Gaudi, Barcelona's most famous architect whose work is everywhere here, died because he was run over by a tram.

So, hasta la vista then Barcelona - goodbye until I see you again. Which I hope won't be long, because it's as wonderful as everyone says - all the attributes of the best of cities and some lovely beaches too!

And it's the city that taught me that any photograph looks better with a palm tree in it somewhere:

Picturesque, and jolly too - who would not love them? The photo above was taken this evening, just before sunset, on a lovely warm November 6.

And, before I fly back to Leeds tomorrow (it was grey and foggy there today- yippee!) i will leave you for now with a photograph of the sun setting over the sea and the Olympic Port.

What a wonderful few days I've had here. And poor Stephen, busy with the Tech-Ed conference, has seen none of it.

But I'm sure we'll be back.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Of Cathedrals, Yobs and Baseball Caps

Here in Barcelona seems a very long way from either Barack Obama (go Barack!) or Guy Fawkes (who failed to go bang, or to make the Houses of Parliament go bang, some years ago and whose failure is celebrated in Blighty with bonfires and fireworks today).

But, as I said, today I'm a long way away and had other concerns.

Such as, what did this mean?

To give you a clue, I saw it in the (wonderful) cathedral. Not the famous Gaudi church, the Sagrada Familia - they've been trying to finish that for about 125 years, so I thought I'd give them another day to get it all done and I'm planning to go tomorrow.

At the entrance to the cathedral, there was this sign.

Aftera bit of puzzling, I worked it out, and then I found a little video that confirmed that I was correct.

Men in baseball caps ("baseball cap" is clearly a synonym for "yob" in cathedral-speak) and women in short skirts (the hussies) could not enter the cathedral as this was disrespectful.

Men without baseball caps and women in below-the-knee skirts, however, are welcome. Quite how I, wearing my usual jeans, fitted into this I am not sure but, as I have mentioned previously, I radiate a strange respectability anyway so I was fine.

After I had seen the geese in the cloisters, and looked round the magnificent cathedral, and gone up in the lift to the roof and taken lots of photographs, and seen the wonderful mediaeval paintings, I came out into the square outside. There are lots of lovely, peaceful squares in Barcelona but this one was anything but peaceful, because of this lot.

This was the very first time I have encountered the drunk-Brits-in-Spain syndrome and I hated it. Their loud, raucous, voices resounded round the whole square, continuously, as quiet Spaniards walked past and stared and I hid my copy of Time Out Barcelona and hoped I didn't look too British.

To me, it made it worse that they were directly outside the entrance to the cathedral. I'm not religious, as you know, but nevertheless to me any kind of church should be a place of beauty and quiet and the best of humanity.

However, I do feel that I should point out that none of them was wearing a baseball cap. Or a short skirt either, come to that, though the chap in blue seems keen to show us more of his bottom than I, for one, was interested in seeing.

I think the cathedral needs to have a bit of a rethink of its policy.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


Here's the part of the beach in Barcelona where our hotel is. This was yesterday, November 3rd. Why people go to Spain for the winter when they could be in glorious British greyness I really don't know.

I've never really liked going to any foreign country (not that I've done much of it, until recently) without knowing the language, at least a bit.

So I've been trying to learn a bit of Spanish before I came here.

A few years ago there was a recurring sketch on the television series The Fast Show which was supposed to be part of a Spanish television weather forecast, with Caroline Aherne as the weather girl.

Whatever the introduction was, the summary of the weather was always lot of pictures of the sun and the exclamation "Scorchio!"

And I think that's the language I'm speaking in Barcelona.

The main language spoken in Barcelona is Catalan: then Spanish and there's quite a bit of English too. Catalan written down looks a bit like Spanish with more t's and j's in it (that could perhaps be an over-simplification!)

So, I have very very basic Spanish. Muy bien. Hola. That kind of thing. However, I did five years' Latin at school. Though it was quite some time ago. Mind you, when Miss Rose taught you Latin, you learned it thoroughly or a terrible fate would befall you. Also, I did a year's Italian at university. And, yes, yes, I know, that was quite some time ago too. 1974-1975 was the year of my Italian and, no, before you ask, the Romans weren't still in power.

Oh, and some Welsh at evening classes, and some German ditto. Both entirely useless in Spain, I tell you now.

Anyway, in amongst all this I learned French at school and, as with Miss Rose, when Miss Pullan taught you French you ended up knowing it pretty well or spending your whole life in detention (they were very fierce, those old grammar-school spinster schoolteachers). So French is the only language apart from English that I'm pretty confident in.

So the result of all this is that I'm pleased to find that I can understand the kind of written Spanish that you get on notices about things, especially when you know that it's likely to be about the opening hours or whatever. And they have helped me a bit by throwing in the occasional English word such as "Futbol" for soccer, which is excellent.

But, of course, I can't really speak Spanish, so I am conversing in some kind of hybrid European language which I term Scorchio. The kind of language that you find in hot countries which has lots of the letter a in it.

Nobody seems to mind - in fact they seem very tolerant as I rummage in the dictionary and throw in a few words which I hope will make sense. Most people do speak at least a few words of English but they seem pleased that I'm trying.

But I'm getting rather fond of Spanish, and when I get home I want to try to learn some more, properly, so I know some grammar and that kind of thing. Because I'm getting rather fond of Spain too, and hope to return.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Sunburned in November

Yes, I agree, you´re all right. All of you who said Barcelona is gorgeous.

I´ve just been walking for miles along the seafront to the Olympic port and loved every moment. There isn´t a cloud in the sky today and it´s really warm - I think I´ve probably got rather sunburned.

I´m typing this on the hotel´s computer downstairs and there´s a queue now so I´d better go and see if by any miracle they´ve mended the internet in our room. I have a feeling that they don´t see it as a priority - though I DO!

I have taken lots of photos, be warned. More news soon.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Hola from Barcelona

Rather a bumpy flight to Barcelona, but thankfully it´s much warmer here than in freezing cold Leeds, and lots of palm trees everywhere. There´s a scented shrub about with a heady smell that takes me straight back to my very young childhood when we went on holiday to Italy - I haven´t been so far south since then, when I was eight!

I´m typing this on a Spanish keyboard in the hotel foyer because the wired internet access in our room is broken. Not ideal, this, as Stephen has his work laptop and I have my Eee and his work chose this hotel because of its proximity to the Tech Ed conference and the hotel´s internet access -- - sighhhhhhhhhh.

Apparently Technical Man will come tomorrow and I hope he´ll mend it - we´ve already asked to change rooms but the hotel is full because of the Tech Ed conference.

There are two free computers in the foyer and I´m on one of them - it just crashed so I´m typing this quickly! The other one is broken as its cable has been stolen apparently.

Stephen has registered for Tech Ed where there were about a million geeky-looking men milling about. I didn´t see any women. Why should this be, I ask?

I´ll post this quickly now in case it crashes again. So far Barcelona gets ten out of ten for palm trees and nul points for technical competence. More news soon, from your Foreign Correspondent!

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Flying Toddlers

Those readers who've been reading this blog for some time (and I thank you!) may remember that about eighteen months ago I kept going on about the exciting refurbishments that were happening to our local Sainsbury's, such as the creation of Smelly Aisle, where there lurked the scent of death and decay and nobody seemed to know why, and they had either hired staff with no sense of smell or trained them all never to mention it.

Finally the Reek of Putrefaction faded and all returned to normal, except, I suppose, for the family of the missing builder, who are no doubt still wondering what happened to him.

Another thing was the Small Children's Sink in the Ladies.

They built a row of sinks with a small one at the end. So far so good - - excellent idea, so that small children could reach to wash their hands.

The only thing was, they put it at the wrong end, just next to the door. If the child stands directly in front of the sink his or her safety is more or less assured. However if - as small children tend to do - the child dares to move round to the side of the sink, then said child is directly in line of the opening door.

On my first visit to this Ladies I watched with interest and not a little horror as a large lady pushed the door open, sending a small toddler flying across the room.

On my second visit, some weeks later, the same thing happened. The door flies open. The toddler is thrown over backwards. The toddler yells. Does the mother complain to the shop? I don't think she does.

Of course, Big Gob here can't resist pointing out to the nearest member of staff that toddlers are generally not intended to fly, and explains what has happened. She looks at me as though I'm a bit mad.

Well, the months have gone by, and I had forgotten this exciting potential for disaster. Until today.

As I was standing combing my hair (yes, I do comb it, it's just curly, okay?) I noticed a toddler standing on Death Row round by the side of the little sink.

"Excuse me," I said, "but it might be a good idea to move your toddler out of the way of the - - "

and BANG! The door opened and the toddler flew across the room.

So, how many times in the last eighteen months has this happened? Health and Safety are always, it seems, up to something daft such as stopping children from playing conkers. But where on earth are they when you really need them?