Thursday, December 31, 2009

Jolly Thoughts on New Year's Eve

It's taken me a while to work it out, because I'm not always very quick to work things out when they concern me, but I have to tell you that New Year's Eve and I are not good friends.

I've tried going to parties, which was never going to work because I don't like parties at the best of times and certainly not on New Year's Eve, (or, to give it its full title, Oh My Goodness Let's Think About All The Loved Ones Who Have Died and All The Terrible Things That Have Happened This Year Night.) I've tried staying at home and pretending it's not happening. Of recent years, I've done a kind of hybrid thing where I stay at home and pretend it's not happening until about ten to midnight. Then it's over to my mother's house and we have to sing Auld Lang Syne and watch Jools Holland, or That Bloody Awful Jools Holland Plays Music That I Hate, to give the programme its full title.

In general, I'm a Cup Half Full kind of person and in general my attitude to any feelings of melancholy is to kick myself rather hard, pull myself together and move on.

But the more people drink, and be merry, and let off fireworks, and sing Auld Lang Sodding Syne - to give the song its full title - the more quiet and miserable I get. And then I feel bad for being quiet and miserable and then I feel worse. And sometimes people ask what's wrong with me and I hate that because all I can say is that I don't know, really.

But all would be well - or at least better - if my mother could do what she'd love to do most, and that's to go to a New Year's Eve party, get a bit tipsy, flirt a lot and dance all night. Which, I must point out, is my idea of hell. If I were her, I'd be throwing a party. In fact, when she was my age, she used to do just that - this house was well-known for such things. But now she's eighty-five, and eighty-five-year-olds don't tend to get invited to other people's parties, and her Unsociable Daughter and Even More Unsociable Son-in-Law never have them. And her Rather More Sociable Son and Rather More Sociable Daughter-in-Law live in Amsterdam.

So why the hell can't I be cheerful, if only for my mother's sake, and jolly myself out of it? Yes, since you ask, it's been a very hard year in some ways - but a very good one in others. I suspect my New Year's Eve melancholy is more to do with me than to do with actual events in my life - - and as for the terrible events in the world - well, there are always plenty of those and other people manage to put them to one side so why can't I?

I think it's the emotional expectation that I don't like. I don't like any big social event, in general, that's got clouds of Having a Good Time around it, and the bigger the Having a Good Time expectation is, the worse that I get. Yes, yes I know, self-pitying whinger, why don't I just count my blessings?

And I have many, many blessings to count, of course. I know that: please don't think I don't. Grateful thanks to those who have helped me to get through the worst bits of this year, and also to enjoy the best bits - you know who you are, or you jolly well should do. But tonight I shall be at home, finishing off the one glassful of Baileys that's left in the bottle. I have invited my mother over to our house just before midnight and I'll try to put on some semblance of good cheer.

But if Jools Holland dares to come on my telly I shall pull all his wires out.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

On the Eve of the New Millennium

There was a lot of debate as to when the new millennium would actually begin. Some people said, rather pedantically, that it should start with the year 2001, since they didn't sit around a couple of thousand years ago saying "We'll call this the year 0".

But the whole thing was a bit messy anyway, and relied upon the Romans being willing to count backwards for some time before it ("Hey, Claudius, it's 55BC, nearly time for us to invade Britain").

And it just seemed so much more - - well, right - - to have the next millennium starting at the year 2000, so that was what we all decided to do.

There was a lot of discussion in the newpapers about the Millennium Bug, which was going to be caused by the fact that some computers hadn't been programmed to know about any date that didn't begin with 19. Once the time clocks on computers had got to the end of the last date that started with 19, they would all simultaneously go "Hey! No information! I'm sorry, Dave. Goodbye." Planes would crash out of the sky and microwave ovens would stop before the potatoes were baked. It was a worrying time.

For some reason, we chose that near-Millennium moment to put our house on the market. The plan was that we should buy the family house where I grew up, and the Communist and my mother would have a house built in its grounds, which happened to be big enough because the Communist and my mother happened to have bought the bottom half of next door's garden in 1965, just because the old ladies next door offered it to them. At the time, there were no thoughts of building - my mother especially loves gardening and just liked the idea of an even bigger garden.

But finally a Plan was formed to build a house in the grounds, and so in late November we put our house up for sale, thinking it probably wouldn't sell till the Spring.

And then, about two days later, the second people who saw it offered us the asking price - which was actually somewhat higher than any estate agent had said we'd get, so we were keen to accept their offer.

But it was a conditional offer: they, and their cockatoo called Cassie, had to move in before Christmas.

So it was all an incredible rush. The removal firm - an old and well-respected one - was staffed entirely by men who just wanted to finish the job and then finish their Christmas shopping. So in spite of my careful labelling of what should go in which room, everything appeared to have been dumped in entirely random order in my parents' house - - which was, of course, already full of my parents' furniture.

It was a bit of a nightmare. It was very stressful, and took a lot of sorting out, and the cold I'd got seemed to be getting worse, until suddenly, on New Year's Eve, it turned into a spectacular chest infection. The doctor came (now THAT wouldn't happen these days, would it?) and listened to my rather overly-dramatic coughing, which sounded like the soundtrack to a film about Poverty in the Victorian Era. She prescribed massive doses of antibiotics.

I felt so ill that I could barely move. I was aware that there were fireworks outside, but I couldn't turn my head to look at them. I languished on the sofa, appreciating the full meaning of the word "languish". I could see fireworks on the television in front of me, and they made my head hurt. Everything made everything hurt. I was a bit doubtful if the new Millennium had any plans to include me.

But finally, it turned into January 1st, 2000 and I finally raised the energy to crawl off to bed. Probably in order to avoid that bloody awful Jools Holland on telly playing "Tuneless Tunes to Make You Wish It Was Still Last Year".

It doesn't seem very long ago - - until I think that Olli was only ten then, and is now twenty. That's one thing that really shows the passage of time to me: children growing up.

And tomorrow it will be ten years later: ten whole years since that day when I lay on the sofa and coughed like a dying Bronte. A lot's happened since then, hasn't it?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

In the Swim Again

Having met my oldest friends Jo and Deb at the swimming pool before Christmas, we decided to go swimming together again, just like we did when we were children. Jo's four months younger than me and Deb's four years younger and they are both tiny (Jo's four feet ten, Deb's four feet eight).

But they are both excellent swimmers and Deb's sons are serious competitive swimmers who train every day.

The worst moment this morning was when the alarm went off at seven - - it had to be early because I wanted to eat something before swimming and I also wanted to leave a bit of time between eating and swimming. I really didn't feel like getting up and going out. But I dragged myself out of bed and made a big bowl of porridge.

It was cold and dark and icy when I set off at eight o'clock and the pool's down its own lane which looked very slippery, but I managed not to skid in the car.

Once inside the leisure centre it was really warm. Jo and Deb arrived at the same time as I did, and we got changed and got in the pool - - which was incredibly warm, a bit too warm for me really as I always get warm anyway once I'm moving.

I did sixty-four lengths, which is a mile - I'm making that my regular swim now in preparation for the Great North Swim in Windermere in early September next year. (If anyone fancies doing it too, there are only 1000 places left out of the 6000 there were available!)

But in the time I took to do my sixty-four lengths - about an hour and ten minutes - Jo did eighty lengths. Deb did ninety-something, but didn't really count the number - I noticed her passing me in a blur as she whizzed up and down the pool in a smooth front crawl.

But hey, I've never been a fast swimmer - and those two always have been, and they've certainly always been faster than me.

And it doesn't matter. I'm just pleased that I can swim a mile without feeling tired at the end of it. What is it about swimming that I love so much? I love having my own time, my own thoughts, and I love moving through the water. It makes me feel better for the rest of the day.

Of course, it was a slightly crazy idea, really, going out in the cold, dark, early morning, in this strange time between Christmas and New Year. You probably won't be surprised to learn that, in spite of the warmth of the water, there weren't many people there. Certainly it was a little bit mad of us.

We're going again tomorrow.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Festival of Falling Over

It's been a while since Leeds has been able to hold a Festival of Falling Over but today, in the huge and stately Roundhay Park, the Festival was in full swing.

The paths were like ice.

Actually, the paths were ice. I had rashly thought that yesterday's thaw would have melted the paths, but no.

The snow that had fallen had thawed a bit, been compacted by people's feet, and then frozen into ice again.

It's very slippy, ice, I should like to point out. I was wearing my walking boots which have good grippy soles and even so I was tottering along in some places like - well, like someone who didn't fancy spending the rest of the day in Accident and Emergency along with dozens of others.

So really, Stephen and I were rather spoilsports and didn't enter fully into the spirit of the Festival of Falling Over. On the other hand, we each still have two functioning ankles.

Others had realised that if you really want to take part in the Festival with an open heart, what you need is a large and bouncy dog that's never been trained to walk to heel. Something like a labrador is good, one that's about a year old if possible. Then you put it on a lead and all you have to do is wear smooth-soled shoes and as soon as it sets off you'll be flying through the air in no time. Wheeeeeeee - - - BANG! All round the park.

One small boy, however, ran at full pelt down the frozen path, on purpose. He didn't fall - he came to a neat halt and shouted "Hey, that was scary" to his Dad who was following.
"I bet it was, lad," said his Dad lugubriously.

I don't think I've seen so much of the lake frozen for decades.

It's very big, and very deep. Parts of it had been broken and refrozen, making for interesting and very chilly-looking patterns in the ice.

In the very very long cold winter of 1962 - 1963 (when I was very very young, I repeat VERY VERY YOUNG), the ice on Waterloo Lake was so thick that the Communist and I walked right across the lake, along with many other people.

I don't think this would be permitted now - thinking about it, if the ice had broken we'd almost certainly have died - but I'm glad, in retrospect, that I did it. And the Big Freeze then lasted from December to March - we've had nothing like it since.

Round the far side of the lake the path was even slippier and the only way to avoid falling - and possibly sliding straight into the lake - was to climb up the leaf-covered slopes beneath the trees. It wasn't easy. At one point, surrounded by steep icy slopes in all directions with the lake at the bottom of them, I did wonder whether staying put until the thaw might be an option, but Stephen didn't seem keen.

As we rounded the end of the lake on our journey back we thought that walking across the snowy field might be easier - but even the snow was frozen so solidly that it too was slippery. I produced some bread from my bag and the sky filled with hungry crows. Lots of people were feeding the ducks, so I thought it was fair to give it all to the crows.

The Victorian park furniture looked rather good in the snow, I thought:

That's the frozen lake in the background.

As we slithered across the car park back to our car the sun was already low in the sky.

A walk which would normally take just over half an hour had taken us an hour and a half.

It all looked very pretty, granted.

But, in truth, I think that's me done with the investigations of the Great Outdoors until the Great Outdoors becomes a bit less white. It's not that I'm against exercise, you understand. Tomorrow I plan to go swimming. In a pool with no ice on it. Lovely.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Leeds, a Seaport Town

It was late August, 1975: I was a student aged just nineteen and I was helping to run a drama course for primary-school age children at Allerton Grange school along the road. I've been looking at the photos - rather faded - and thinking those children will all be well into their forties now, which is weird.

I can't remember what the course was about but I know we nicknamed it Hobbity-Rabbit week so I think hobbits and rabbits must have been involved, somewhere. Perhaps my friend David remembers as he was running it.

The music for the week was provided by a man called Ian Crabtree, who was my brother's guitar teacher.

And he brought along a song about Leeds, which really intrigued me.

It must have been written in the 1850s as it mentions the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace, London.

The song's a satire on all the changes going on in Victorian times. Leeds was a big, smoky, filthy industrial city in those days: now it's become all gentrified and thinks it's Barcelona, but that's another story! It's right in the middle of England and as far from the sea as you can get here - which, granted, isn't that far, only about sixty miles.

So the premise of the song is that the technology of the day is so amazing that lots of things will happen "when Leeds becomes a seaport town".

It starts like this:

Oh dear, oh dear, this a curious age is
Alteration all the rage is
Young and old in the stream are moving
All in the general cry improving
From the Exhibition I brought news down
They're going to make it a seaport town
Instead of factories and cheap tailors
Nothing you'll see but ships and sailors.

Thus 'twill be, I'll bet you a crown
When Leeds becomes a seaport town.

(A crown, for those of you too young to know - - - sigh - - was five shillings. A shilling, for those of you too young to know, was five pence in new British currency but was of course worth a lot more than five pence is now. Whenever I was given a shilling as a child I felt rather rich.)

At the time of the drama course, I told Ian that I liked the song and he photocopied the music for me. I kept it for years but finally it got lost somewhere.

But I'd always thought of it, and from time to time searched for it in a desultory way, but never found it again.

Then they invented the interclacker.

A few years ago I searched - - - no luck, but I did find a few people who were also searching for it.

Then last night, I thought of it and searched again. I found it in two minutes and you can listen to it here. (or if that doesn't work, try Googling it - it's on an album called The Bold Navigators) .It's one of those folk songs where you have to wear an Aran sweater and stick a finger in your ear, and it tells a lot about the times. I like some of the lines about the ships "sailing and anchoring in Leeds Bay" and the imports there'd be: "baboons, racoons and Spanish donkeys, jays, cockatoos and ring-tailed monkeys".

Last night was the first time I'd heard it since 1975. Over thirty-four years ago!

Of course, in those days, I used to play it on the piano. There never seemed to be a record of it available, but if there had been I would have bought the single and played it on my Dansette record-player, with its new-fangled facility to play several LPs (long-playing records in case you don't know) in a row, all coming down one after the other in a miracle of technology.

Last night when I found the song, I downloaded it from Amazon and put it on my MP3 player for the cost of 79p.

By heck, there've been some changes in thirty-four years. Oh dear, oh dear, this a curious age is. Alteration all the rage is.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

No Calorie Unattempted

Yesterday, food-wise, was much like many people's I suppose. After warming up on an introductory round of porridge, I went for the gold medal in the Eating Like a Pig stakes at lunchtime, with turkey and what is usually described as "all the trimmings".

Of course, being diabetic, I couldn't possibly permit myself to eat Christmas pudding with brandy sauce - - but that is exactly what I did.

Something in me thinks that I get a few days off being diabetic at Christmas, at least until the bottle of Baileys is finished. I haven't drunk more than two glasses of it a day, though, and at least I haven't drunk any other alcohol, and I won't.

I've been having a very stressful time in many ways recently, and Stressed-Out Emotional Daphne thinks - entirely mistakenly - that if I eat things that are bad for me, this will help. Logical-Brain-Daphne (stop it! I can hear you laughing at the very idea that such a person exists) explains to Stressed-Out Emotional Daphne that a piece of Christmas cake, or a chunk of Christmas pudding is really not a good idea. It could be the thin end of the wedge. Today, a piece of Christmas pudding, tomorrow a whole box of Quality Street.

Stressed-Out Emotional Daphne listens carefully to the other Daphne's advice - - and then says "Yeah, I know. Can I have a bit more brandy sauce?"

It's not that I don't like all the things that are good for me. I love fruit, I love salad, and I like almost all vegetables.

So here's my lunch today after yesterday's Troughing Marathon:

Turkey salad with a bit of cranberry sauce. I love salad. Delicious, and healthy too. Looks pretty, as well, doesn't it?

"Great," said Logical-Brain Daphne, "that's a good start. Stop eating now, you've had plenty over the past couple of days and certainly you've had too much sweet stuff."

"Yes, but of course salad counts as negative calories," said Stressed-Out and Emotional Daphne. "And I will stop. Just as soon as I've finished off this last piece of Christmas pud. And I see there's a bit of sauce left too. Pity to waste it."

I'm going swimming as soon as the pool opens again. I think I'd better increase my target swim from seventy lengths to something like the width of the Pacific Ocean, to work this lot off.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas on Franks Mountain

Of course we're not really up on a mountain, as in the title. We are up a hill, though, which is rather dramatically, and with a certain amount of wild exaggeration, known as Little Switzerland.

A small child who'd come up that way to visit us once said with fervour "Oh, you live on the Mountain!" so our house has been known as Franks Mountain ever since.

Oswald the Snowman, who was perfectly capable of standing upright when we left him yesterday, had clearly been on the whiskey overnight.

We had rather a lot of Christmas lunch. We had turkey, sausages wrapped in bacon, and sausages without the bacon. We also had bacon without the sausages, cooked on top of the turkey.

Olli made the best roast potatoes in the whole world ever by working out that everyone likes the small ones, which are of course really bad for you as they're full of fat. But hey, it's Christmas so we only had small ones.

To accompany the turkey and sausages and bacon and roast potatoes, we had stuffing, and sprouts, and peas, and sweetcorn, and onion which was cooked round the turkey. Gareth made a huge panful of delicious gravy using the water from parboiling the potatoes and the juices from the turkey.

Then we had a variety of desserts including Christmas pud and brandy sauce, and lots of other things made of chocolate for those who didn't like Christmas pud.

There were Stephen and me, and Olli and Gareth, and my mother, and our old friend Connie ("old" in both senses - I've known her for thirty-five years, and she's ninety next birthday.)

Everything somehow had a red and gold feel to it, and this Victorian and Dickensian look was rather pleasing.

To add to the Dickensian flavour, Gareth's Christmas present to Olli was a delightful pocket watch.

To tell you the truth, I'd been a bit worried about how I'd be on Christmas Day. The Communist, who was of course a Jewish atheist, nevertheless loved Christmas Day for its warmth and jollity and dinner. Olli reminded me today that every year he'd say "I don't like turkey much, it's too dry" and then eat about eleven helpings of it.

Although he'd died before Christmas last year, it was only about three weeks before Christmas, and so I was kind of expecting him to come back, really, and sit there in a paper hat and sing to us.

But this year it's finally come home to me that he's gone, and I don't like that, and I miss him.

Ah, people say, but he'd have wanted you to have a good Christmas without him.

Actually, no he jolly well wouldn't - he'd never have wanted that - he'd want to be with us. But we've done our very best, and we've had a good day - - and so he has been with us, in a way.

Here's Stephen this morning, with our cat, on the sofa, next to the tree:

And here's the Ghost of Christmas Past, on the sofa, next to the tree, on Christmas Day 2006.

It's strange how things stay the same, and how they change.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Oswald the Snowman

"Come on," said Oswald, "let's all pose for the camera, now I've got my sunhat on and everything."

"Okay," replied Olli and Gareth.

"Smile!" said Oswald, putting his arm round Gareth.

And this is the result.

In the Bleak Midwinter

It's the wrong sort of snow.

This is the kind of snow that we had when I was a child. This isn't modern snow. Modern snow dribbles down from the sky in a scared and tentative manner and then melts.

Today we have the kind of snow that I remember from years ago, drifting down from the sky in fluffiness, like an explosion in a pillow factory. It makes everything different.

It's silent, and a bit spooky. Last night, leaning out of the bedroom window, I took this photo of the branches outside. No wonder people were scared of the dark if this is the kind of thing they used to see in the Olden Days.

This morning, the view of our garden, looking towards our mother's house, looked a bit cosier:

So, all that singing about I'm dreaming of a white Christmas has finally paid off, and we're finally going to get one. And do we like it? - - er - - no. When it comes to snow, I think I prefer the melting kind.

And, actually, if nobody minds, I think I'll have a summer morning on Lake Como, Italy, instead.

Aaaaah! That's better.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

So Here It Is

A combination of events meant that the only time I could do the Christmas food shopping was midday today, in between accompanying Olli to a hospital appointment in Leeds and going to an old friend's Christmas "do" this afternoon. Yesterday I was working in the office. The day before I was in London. Tomorrow morning I'm going with my mother to her hospital appointment, for her broken shoulder.

So there's been no time to go hunting turkeys. Usually I do the big food shop early in the morning on the 23rd - about six o'clock in the morning - but I thought that the roads were too icy to do that this year.

Still, today was a good reminder of why I usually make the effort to get up and go out early.

The supermarket was packed with people who had clearly failed their Supermarket Trolley Licence. In fact I think they'd failed their Pedestrian Licence. People cannoned into me all the time, either with their trolleys or with their bodies.

For the first time ever, I didn't manage to get a whole turkey: there weren't any. But I did get something called a Turkey Crown, which is a strangely deformed turkey that was clearly born with no wings and a lot of breast. It's supposed to feed nine people, and probably would if every one of them was my mother. "No, y0u've given me nearly two square inches of turkey and three peas and a whole sprout. That's far too much!"

But still, I think the five of us will struggle by with it for Christmas Dinner, and I've bought a big joint of beef too for when it runs out. A bit of a shame though, because I like all the funny bits of turkey that nobody else likes and I love turkey and am happy to eat it every meal until it's all gone.

The most annoying thing, actually, were some members of Leeds Diving Club rattling buckets all the time, hoping to collect change to help them to - - well, dive, I suppose. The constant rattling was so very annoying that I had to quash the urge to yell "I hope you all drown!" as I passed them.

This year I've noticed that the supermarkets haven't done their usual thing of playing jolly Christmas music all the time since September. In fact I haven't heard much of it at all, until today. And I don't think I've heard Slade's Merry Christmas Everybody at all, which is a shame because actually I've always rather liked it - it brings back fond memories of one of the better moments of my teenage years.

I'd made friends with some of the boys from Leeds Grammar School on a summer drama course, and they had invited me to Leeds Grammar School Christmas Dance. This was the golden ticket that many girls from the school I went to aspired to - - but I was too naive to know this.

So, just as Merry Christmas Everybody was playing, in came a small group of the Popular and Beautiful girls from my school with their eyes out on stalks looking for the gorgeous young hunks that were the Leeds Grammar School boys.

And what their eyes landed on was - - er - - me. In the middle of a group of boys. I was friends with them, there was no romance, but actually I was enjoying their friendship and didn't fancy any of them. However, the Popular and Beautiful girls were astonished that such rarefied creatures would even condescend to speak to Specky Four-Eyes School Swot Daphne.

I registered in their eyes the one thing that no amount of good school results would get from them - - and that was respect. They were still talking about it the next week. Girls kept coming up to me. "Were you really at the Leeds Grammar School Dance?"

I've always enjoyed that moment over again, every time I hear the song.

So here it is. Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Snow in the City

It was a freezing cold morning as we made our way along the train, which luckily was very warm. Coach G - - WARM. Coach F - - WARM. Coach E - - WARM. Coach D - - our coach - - ICEBOX! As we found our seats, a howling gale blew icy fragments along the corridor. A polar bear in the seat in front turned round and said "Great, isn't it? I'm going to stay in this seat until Spring."

On the wall was a little notice inviting you to text East Coast Trains with any feedback. With hands rapidly turning blue, I texted them to report the lack of heating in Coach D.

They texted me back "Sorry you're unhappy - but hey, things could be worse - you could have booked on Eurostar! So quit grumbling right now!"

No, they didn't say that. Actually they sent me a generalised text and then a real text from a real person to say sorry it's cold: and then there was an announcement from the guard to say that it had been noticed that Coach D was really rather chilly and we could move to reserved seats in other parts of the train if we wished.

So we did. But the icy blast from Coach D somehow permeated the rest of the train as we got going.

And then there was a points failure that delayed us for an hour, and then we got to London.

My son Olli was going to see the Gender Specialist for a testosterone injection, because the wheels of the NHS grind very slowly on such issues so he's having private treatment until the NHS take over, like many transgender people. (If you're new to this blog, Olli is twenty, was assigned female at birth and is married to my lovely son-in-law Gareth and they're still very happy together. Yes, I know it's an unusual situation).

We set off to walk from Kings Cross as it wasn't too far, and called in at the British Library as our attention was drawn by a poster advertising an exhibition of nineteenth-century photographs.

It was fascinating and we loved it and wished we had more time - but we didn't, so we had to go, as it was nearly time for Olli's appointment (but if you're in London and you like old photos, do go and see it).

And as we walked to the doctor's, it started to rain. And this had not been forecast. We were wearing warm coats, not raincoats. It rained very hard indeed, and then the rain turned to sleet.

I was soaking wet by the time we got to the doctor's. Water dripped from every bit of my clothing. I marvelled at the puddle round my feet.

Olli had his injection. He said the doctor produced a comedy syringe, like something out of a Carry On film, because he had 40 cubic centimetres of testosterone injected. Which is a LOT. It took about three minutes to inject. Ewww and furthermore Owww. And Owww at the cost too - £250 in total for the consultation and the injection. National Health Service, I love you but could you be a bit quicker to start paying for all this, please?

We went out into the snowstorm, which, by the way, had not been forecast either. We were supposed to be going to the London Eye, and had tickets booked - - but there were lots of cancellations on the Tube, and a complete white-out in the sky, and I reluctantly decided that it would be very hard to get to the London Eye, and even harder to get back again, and I was by now soaked to the skin and freezing cold and couldn't bear the idea of walking in the snow for one minute more than I absolutely had to.

We both got rather upset. We'd been looking forward to the London Eye, but even if we'd gone on it all we would have seen was WHITE.

So we went back to Kings Cross and sat in the waiting-room until our train at eight o'clock. It was warm - - but I just couldn't seem to warm up. I don't get cold easily as long as I keep moving - - but my wet clothes just kept me freezing. A few of my toes fell off and rattled round in my shoes.

We got the train which was delayed for half an hour on the way back - some problem with a level crossing - and then Stephen came to meet us at the station, and we finally got home at about eleven o'clock. I don't think I've ever been so cold and so wet for so long.

After I'd warmed up a bit, I spoke to Silverback on Yahoo Messenger. He was then in Michigan where it was snowy too - but he's now heading back to sunny, palm-tree-filled Florida.

"So," he said, cutting to the chase as usual, "apart from the train issues, getting soaked, no London Eye, spending £250 and both getting really upset, was it a good day?"

I fell about laughing: he always cheers me up.

But actually, in a way, it was a good day. The hot bath I had in the evening was the most enjoyable hot bath that I've ever had. We'll go back to the London Eye on a day with better weather. And on the train the ticket inspector said to Olli, "May I see your ticket, sir?" and that was my first proof that others can see what I see - that Olli is now looking, and sounding, like a young man, and he's so much happier that way.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Thought for the Day

Olli and Gareth went to Whitby in North Yorkshire yesterday. Just in case you don't know it, it's a delightful old-fashioned seaside town, very scenic and with excellent fish-and-chip shops, formerly home of Captain Cook who discovered lots of far-flung places, and latterly the location of many good Goth shops.

Olli and Gareth have been there every Christmas since they met, so yesterday was their seventh Christmas visit, amazingly. I was worried about yesterday's trip because there was lots of snow on the North York Moors, but they managed to get there and back safely in spite of, as Olli put it, "a bit of Snowy Death on the way".

You can climb up lots and lots of steps to Whitby Abbey, which has wonderful views from the top, and next to it is St Mary's Church.

Inside the church there were lots of messages and prayers that people have left.

Olli texted me with his favourite, written by a small child.

To everyone in the world who has dieded. Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

All My Own Fault

Now I know you'll say it's all my own fault for going back to the same old hairdresser, Mad Barbara.

But, as usual, I'd waited until I couldn't stand my hair another moment and I didn't have time to find someone else. So off I went, teetering along the icy pavements the couple of hundred yards from our house.

She has a new junior. She often has a new junior. They never stay long. I thought of whispering to this one, "Leave now, whilst you're still sane".

Mad Barbara throws up such a cloud of words that it's hard to follow what she's saying a lot of the time.

"Now, you were last here in August - - no, that can't be right - - what does it say on your card?"

"October" I said.

"Oh yes, October," she said, "but I didn't write the colour number down."

Did this surprise me? No. She's in a perpetual fog about the numbers which apply to different hair colours. Once, you may recall, my hair ended up bright ginger and it's always a bit hit and miss.

As a matter of fact my hair - like my mother's - is hardly grey at all, just a few bits round the edges. The reason I have it dyed is not so much vanity, more that in the roleplay I do, I very rarely play my own age, usually younger, and I hope that the lack of grey hair helps with that illusion.

We all peered at the colour chart. Barbara asked me what I'd like. 675? 673? This one was a bit warmer. This one was a bit darker. Barbara mentioned just about every number between 600 and 800.

"I don't care, just get on with it and get me out of here," is not the answer they're looking for, so I picked a colour.

The junior started to put it on.

After a little while, Barbara came over and did the usual thing she does of saying "Is that how they teach you at college? Well they're telling you all wrong, then. Oh, dear oh dear." And then she demonstrates how she'd do it.

Only this time she noticed that the colour wasn't the one I'd picked.

"This is too dark! What have you done?" she asked of the trembling junior.

"Er - - you said 775," said the junior.

"SIX hundred and seventy five, that's what I said!" exclaimed Barbara.

"No, you said 775," insisted the junior bravely.

A small animated discussion ensued, which Barbara won. I had no idea what she had actually said, since she had mentioned so many numbers, and I'm not surprised that the junior was confused.

My hair had to be washed to get rid of 775, and then 675 had to be put on, and this took longer than it took for dinosaurs to evolve into birds.

After it was washed, it had to be dried and at one point I had both of them pointing hairdryers at me. It was like being in a rather warm gale.

"Oh, you are being pampered this morning!" she said.

I said nothing. NOTHING was what I said. I am never more quiet than at the hairdresser's.

Then she started to cut my hair and she said that thing she always says. "It does grow wild, doesn't it? It's really thick, isn't it?"

It's not polite to say "Like you, you mean?" so I never do, but I always want to, and then I always feel bad for wanting to.

Then she moved on to the topic of my mother and how she's really mentally alert for her age. And then came what always comes from everyone - -

"You don't look anything like your mum, do you? And your hair's not like hers at all."

They always say it with a faint hint of accusation, as if I'd somehow swapped myself with my mother's proper baby. It's happened all my life and I always feel somehow in the wrong and that I'm a big disappointment whenever it's said.

"No, I look like my Dad. And he had curly hair like mine."

"Oh, poor you, inheriting it."

Did I say anything about what she'd inherited and from whom? No, I did not. I said NOTHING.

"And your Mum's so little. Was your Dad really tall, then?"

Okay, now I thought I'd have to say something, because suddenly I felt like a strange, curly-haired giant and it wasn't a good feeling. And actually, I'm quite short - it's just that my mother is tiny.

"I'm only five feet four. I'm not tall. And my Dad was only five feet eight."

"Oh, no, you're not five feet four. You're much taller than that. You should measure yourself. You're much taller. Fancy thinking that you're only five feet four! Hahahahaha!"

"Barbara, you are not only very rude to your staff and remarkably disorganised, but you are possibly the most stupid person that I have ever met."

No, I didn't say it. I paid and I left.

I'm not going back. I mean it.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Contrasting Communication Skills

For the past couple of days, when there hasn't been any snow, I've been working from home and haven't had to go anywhere. I've been pleased with this as I've had a cold as well and have welcomed the opportunity to stay in the warm.

But today, when there's literally - er - inches of snow, in Leeds, I had to find my car under its little heap of snow (Stephen helped) and then set off to the hospital.

I arrived at the Breast Screening department in good time and only managed to get a couple of pages into the well-thumbed copy of Hello before they called me through. I shall never know what Jordan said to Peter now but frankly, I don't care.

I've been having this breast-screening palaver for a few years now. I started younger than most because my mother was given a drug called Stilboestrol when pregnant with me. It was supposed to prevent miscarriages but instead caused womb problems in girl children - and, being one of those girl children, that's why I lost my first baby, until they worked out why.

Also, it doubles your risk of breast cancer, which is a very scary thought.

So I've been having this screening for a few years now. In case you don't know what it involves, basically they squish each boob in something resembling a large-scale vice, or sandwich toaster if you prefer, and then they take a photo that - hopefully - shows any abnormalities. They do each one twice: sideways and horizontally, and then you get the results three weeks later, and mine have always been fine, touch wood. It hurts a bit but as tests go it ain't too bad.

The woman doing it today was efficient enough but was most definitely lacking in smiles and pleasantries and empathy. Because I do a lot of medical roleplays for training purposes, I was tempted to stop her and say "Could we just re-run that bit? Now, what could you do to show empathy?"

"Do you have any problems with your breasts?" she asked grimly.

I was SO tempted to make some kind of wisecrack but I thought no, she'll have heard them all before, and anyway I sense that she's a woman who has no sense of humour at all.

"No, I never have had," I said meekly. "They seem to be okay."

"Ah, well, that's what this test's for," she said. "It detects abnormalities that otherwise might not show up for years. So let's not get too complacent, shall we?"

Well, that told me. But hey, I knew that already. Again I was tempted to say something - - along the lines of "I'm NOT complacent! That's why I'm HERE! And now I'm TERRIFIED!" - - but again I kept my head down and my big mouth shut.

In the afternoon, as a kind of encore to this, I went for my annual Diabetes Check at the doctor's, with a practice nurse who specialises in diabetes.

"Hello, Daphne," she said, "great to see you again. Oh, I do miss your Dad, he was such a lovely man. Always joking - he really used to cheer me up even when he was very ill."

I love it when people remember the Communist in that way. It brings him back to life, in a way.

She was full of praise for the efforts I make to keep the problems of diabetes at bay. She praised my constant efforts to eat healthily and to get slimmer and fitter, even if I don't always succeed. She tested the pulses in my feet and pronounced them excellent, and she managed to make it sound as if I'd somehow worked very hard on them and deserved a prize. She asked if I did any exercise and I told her about the swimming and she said that was wonderful, and sounded as though she meant it.

Finally she took my blood pressure and it was really remarkably low - a hundred and twenty over sixty-four. "Brilliant!" she said. "And you've been under a lot of stress too, I know. That's just fantastic that it's so low. The swimming is certainly helping with that, too."

Now then, because I help to teach Communication Skills I knew that what she was doing was all with the aim of making me feel empowered, and as though I have control over my diabetes, and to build up empathy.

But, even though I knew it, it worked. And she didn't do it in an unnatural way - she was just a warm, caring woman who knew how to do her job.

She could have taken the opposite approach - she could have gone - "Now you really must work to keep your blood sugar low or you could be having a leg amputated like your Dad did - - and you could have all the eye problems that he had" - - and all that's true.

But she didn't do that. I went away feeling great. I'm doing well, and I'm going to do even better. Hurrah for the practice nurse.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Round Robin I've Just Sent

I know everyone always says that they hate those round-robin Christmas letters.

Mostly because they tend to be prime examples of Competitive Parenting coupled with a smidgin of just plain Showing Off.

They tell you how little Petronella has passed her Grade 8 Violin at the age of three. Tarquin has passed his Maths A-level and become a Chess Grand Master whilst simultaneously changing his own nappy with the hand that wasn't holding the chess pieces. The dog, Saucy Snowball, has just won Best in Show at Crufts. Even the goldfish has learned to blow bubbles in French.

The mother in the family mentions in passing how she has somehow managed to win Best-Loved Mother of the Year and modestly admits that she has no idea how she did it, what with simultaneously building up her own little embroidery company to become one of Britain's largest exporters of hand-embroidered cushion-covers. She throws in how her husband, James, has raised two hundred thousand pounds running the Little Giddings Marathon for charity.

And by now we want to hurl their letter in the bin. But we don't, we stuff it on the bookshelf behind all the cards and it comes back to haunt us in March when we realise we haven't dusted there since December. Or perhaps that's just me.

So, therefore, the fact that I've just sent out a round-robin letter to many of my friends and relatives, along with their Christmas cards, may come as a bit of a surprise to you.

The thing is, I've always been the keeper-in-touch, the sender of letters in our family. I do still send lots of postcards but last year I didn't send any Christmas cards because the Communist had just died and - - well, I just didn't. And the year before, I notice from my Christmas Card book, I did send them but with a note of explanation that the Communist was in hospital and had just had his leg amputated.

Many, though not all, learned subsequently that the Communist died - but there are still quite a few cards arriving for him.

So what could I do? Some of my family and friends have been wonderfully supportive this past couple of years but others just don't know what's gone on. And they certainly don't know that I now have a much-loved son called Olli when previously I had a much-loved daughter. Not to mention lovely son-in-law Gareth nearly dying from a burst appendix and then being made redundant, twice. And his delightful sister Jo having appendicitis too, just a month after Gareth. And my mother breaking her shoulder, twice.

So I've put the lot in a letter, and I worked very hard to make it as tactful and as gentle as possible, but I know it will all come as a big shock to many, and I know it's not what they were expecting with their Christmas cards, but I know that if I don't do it now then I never will.

And if I don't do it now then I'll have to field questions about "how's your Dad?" and "how's your daughter?" for years to come, and I just don't think I'm up to it, frankly.

So I want everyone to know what's happened. And then, perhaps, next Christmas it can be back to the cards with individual notes or letters inside, like I usually send. I do hope so.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Goats for Grannies

It's that time of year again. The time when people don't send Christmas cards.

Well, businesses don't, anyway. They send you an email with a photo of a goat, or of the building where the business is located, or of a smiling foreign child, or of a rather naff Christmas tree that they found on the internet somewhere.

And with it comes a Festive Message that says something like We haven't sent any Christmas cards this year. We have instead made a charitable donation to Goats for Grannies, (or Make Foreign People Smile, or Christmas Trees for All, or some such worthy cause.)

Unfortunately, unless I know the sender personally, I then tend to think several things:

1) I bet you haven't

2) How much?

3) Okay then, show me the receipt!

4) And if you cared THAT much about the charity you'd send the donation anyway.

5) You've just fired off that email to everyone in your inbox, haven't you, and sighed with relief and thought "Ahhh, that's the Christmas cards sorted!"

Not very Christmassy thoughts, really. I'm sure that in some cases the charitable donation is genuine - - but really, I don't like the current trend of doing this. Send me a Christmas card if you want to. Give a charitable donation if you want to. Don't send me a Christmas card if you don't want to. The two things - the Christmas card and the charitable donation - are not connected in my head. Or they weren't, until you connected them.

But now, in contrast, here's something that's really Christmassy:

It's a Christmas card to the Communist and my mother. Unfortunately, it doesn't have an address on it so I can't write back to explain that he died last year, and the Communist's address book got lost somewhere in the shuttle between hospitals and nursing homes.

It's from Dawn, who was one of the assistants in the Communist's chemist shop. She always sends him a card.

The Communist retired in 1985, when he was sixty-two. Twenty-four years ago. And she's sent a card every year since, from her and her husband and their children.

He was a good man to work for, the Communist - he always looked after his staff. And it's great to have such a reminder of that.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Feel;ing Sorry for Rebecca

So why wasn't she in the water?

I was watching a programme about The Great North Swim, which, you may remember, I have entered next year.

Sitting on a boat, talking about all the elite swimmers, was Olympic champion and Nottinghamshire lass Rebecca Adlington.

The first thing that I thought was - - oh, yes, that's what happens to your shoulders if you swim every day, very fast, for years and years. It happened to my shoulders a bit, and that's because I swam about twice a week throughout my childhood, though I suspect I did it very, very much more slowly than Rebecca.

And then the second thing I thought was - - pleasant, down-to-earth lass - - but why isn't she in the water? Because if I were an Olympic swimmer, and if lots of the swimmers I knew were competing in the Great North Swim, I'd probably want to compete too.

Also, I thought, if she's a swimmer it's surely because she loves swimming. And, therefore, why on earth wouldn't she want to swim in Windermere, on a lovely sunny day?

But there she sat, in a little boat, showing no desire at all to get in the water. Too cold? You'd think an Olympic champion would be made of sterner stuff.

Finally, one of the presenters of the programme asked the question, on behalf of all the viewers. "Why don't you want to take part?"

Rebecca explained that she never swims in lakes, and she never swims in the sea. Paddling is as far as she'll go. She's terrified of fish and of anything else that might be lurking in the depths.

I was really shocked. I love swimming in the sea: I love swimming in lakes: I love swimming in rivers. To be a champion swimmer, with the ability to get through the water really fast, in the freedom of the outdoors - - oh, it would be wonderful!

So here we have an Olympic gold medallist in swimming who's never swum anywhere else than in a chlorine-filled pool. Yes, swimming in swimming pools is good - - but an indoor pool is a poor second-best to an outdoor pool, and an outdoor pool comes second to the sea, or to any open water that's suitable for swimming.

It's true, I hate it when I tread on a flatfish and it wiggles. I don't like it much when I see a jellyfish nearby. But all that's so well worth it to me for the trade-off of splashing in waves, of watching boats in the distance, of swimming without lane markers or the end of the pool, of hearing the sound of seagulls above me. And, of course, last year in Florida, of seeing fishing pelicans dive into the sea beside me. Just wonderful.

All Rebecca has done for years and years is to plough up and down lanes in a swimming pool at a scarily fast speed: and that, to me, is only one aspect of swimming. Poor, poor girl. Olympic gold medallist, maybe, but she just doesn't know what she's missing.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

On a Cold, Dark Sunday Morning

The pool temperature was 27 degrees Celsius, which is just over 80 Fahrenheit.

"That's a bit cooler than usual," said one of the two Friendly Old Codgers I met as I paid. He turned to me. "Too cold, don't you think?"

"Well, er, actually - - " I said, "I'd like it a bit cooler. I'm preparing to swim in a lake."

He gave me the look of a Yorkshireman beholding a lunatic.

We met again in the room with the lockers.

"Are you really going to swim in a lake?" he asked.

"Yes, Windermere, in September next year," I said. "It's the Great North Swim. A mile across Windermere. I've entered and now I need to make sure I can do it. Though the temperature might be below fifteen degrees. Which is why I'd like this pool to be a bit colder."

"You're bonkers," he said cheerfully, though perhaps with some accuracy.

It was cold and dark when my alarm clock went off at seven o'clock this morning and I was very tempted just to turn over but I though no, I've planned to go swimming and that's what I'm going to do.

Scotthall, my usual pool, is closed for refurbishment (oh boy, did it need it!) and I went to Fearnville, which is a bit confusing as it's exactly the same design, though I considered it to be slightly cleaner, which pleased me.

I thought I'd do a mile, which is 64 lengths, as that's what the Great North Swim is. My regular swim has always been a kilometre - 40 lengths - but I thought I need to up the distance a bit.

After about eighteen lengths, rather to my surprise, I heard people shouting my name. To my absolute joy, it was my lifelong friend Jo and her younger sister Deb. Jo's father Syd was at school with the Communist and was his friend right until the Communist's death: Syd's still in good form at nearly eighty-six. Jo and I have known each other ever since she was born, four months after me, and I remember the big fuss when her sister Deb was born four years later.

We went swimming together throughout our childhood. For many years we went to Leeds Ladies at the Olympic Pool on a Thursday night. Jo, who is a tiny four feet ten, is a faster swimmer than I am and Deb, who is an even smaller four feet nine, is much faster than both of us. She swam competitively for years and the other swimmers always underestimated her because she was so small - but she's a little powerhouse of energy.

Deb, in an interesting bid to bring the nation back to average height, is married to a man who's six feet six. Their son, who is fourteen, is a superb swimmer who swims eight times a week, and is the thirteenth fastest in the country in his age group in breast stroke.

So I wasn't going to even try to keep up with Jo and Deb but I kept on going. When I entered the Great North Swim, on the form you have to estimate the time you think the one mile will take you. I put the slowest time you could choose - between an hour and a half and two hours, because I think the cold water might slow me down. Though perhaps it might speed me up in the hope of getting out of it faster!

However, when I'd done sixty lengths I looked at the clock and found to my delight that exactly an hour had gone by - so I was swimming at my old speed of a length a minute. My target was sixty-four lengths but when I'd done that I felt fine so thought I'd do a few extra lengths just to make sure, so I did seventy. And then I did an extra two just in case I'd counted wrong - I always do that!

Jo and Deb got out at the same time as I did - they'd just swum for an hour without counting lengths. We agreed to meet up for more swimming soon.

I was home by quarter past ten and I loved it! I've never been a fast swimmer, though my style's pretty good which is why I can keep on going. But this morning I thought - well, perhaps I don't think I'm a very good swimmer because the people I've often swum with just happen to be really good! At Tenby I used to swim with two brothers and they always beat me by a greater margin every year - - and then the older one popped up, swimming for Scotland in the Commonwealth Games. And it was years before I could beat my mother in a race - - but then, she was a strong competitive swimmer being coached as a possible Olympic hopeful in the thirties - - until Hitler bombed the swimming pool!

It's been a hard few weeks for various reasons: I've been feeling very tired and I was beginning to think - - hey, Daphne, are you sure you can still do this swim? I saw a television programme this week about the actor Robson Green swimming in open water and finding it all really difficult and really cold and I thought - am I deluding myself? He's young and fit and I'm - - well, not so young and not so fit. But I've always swum in open water: I'm used to the cold, though always slightly nervous about getting cramp in my bad leg.

But this morning's given me confidence. I'll carry on training. Bring it on.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Unusual Christmas Decorations

It's nearly Christmas, of course, and Leeds has the usual Christmas lights, German market etc. There are quite a few decorated Christmas trees too and at one end of the side road we're on, some delightful revellers decided to decorate our neighbours' hedge:

Infuriating! I SO hate litter.

At the other end of the street, however, someone had placed a rather large bauble on the old Victorian railings:

And, for some reason, in contrast, this rather appealed to me - it had a look of cheeky naughtiness to it, and I like that.

Many of the houses round here were built in Victorian times, including ours, and looking at these railings made me remember that there used to be such railings on the top of our front wall, before we ever lived here.

But where are they now? Melted down during the war, that's where they went, supposedly to build planes and ships and things to combat Hitler.

I'm pretty sure that I read somewhere that a lot of this old ironwork wasn't actually used - it was just a propaganda exercise to make people feel that they were doing something useful.

If this Government wanted to do something useful, (oh! subtle link there Daphne!) it could set about dealing with the British litter problem, as all our lovely country is gradually getting buried under heaps of plastic and paper.

And, at the same time, it could give me my railings back.

Friday, December 11, 2009

How Not To Do It

The mother of a friend of mine has been diagnosed with cancer.

Now, that's bad enough: but the way in which she was told made it even worse.

The consultant sat at the opposite side of a big desk from the lady and her family, staring at his computer.

His explanation consisted almost entirely of "The test results are positive and it's cancer. I think we've got a leaflet that will tell you more about it."

He turned away from the family and spent a while rummaging on the shelves behind him, finally thrusting a leaflet at my friend's mother.

Meanwhile, a nurse who'd been sitting at the same side of the desk as the family was rustling through a pile of papers looking for information about a different patient. Not finding it, she finally got up and left the room in the middle of the consulation.

My friend and his mother weren't given any opportunity to ask questions: he said he barely spoke. Then they were all ushered out.

There's no excuse for this kind of thing. I've been working in the area of Communication Skills for nearly twenty-five years and this is the sort of consultation that was routine twenty-five years ago. But now all doctors receive Communication Skills training and as part of that there is Breaking Bad News training.

Probably some old-school consultants have missed out on it. "It's just common sense" they say dismissively. I've found that people who say that are always the ones who are incredibly bad at it, because they don't think it's important.

The room should be quiet and private and whoever's breaking the bad news shouldn't be staring at a computer - he or she should be focused on the patient. There shouldn't be a desk in between. It sounds like a trivial thing - it's not. The desk creates a barrier between doctor and patient and also suggests that the doctor has status and the patient doesn't. Trust me on this, because I know, and it's important.

If there's anyone else in the room - such as the nurse in this case - they should be concentrating entirely on the matter in hand and not on some other patient. That's just deplorable, and there is no excuse that is good enough for that to have happened.

The bad news should be introduced via a "warning shot" - - something like "I'm afraid it's bad news" - to give the patient a moment to adjust to it.

And then there should be a clear explanation, as jargon-free as possible and tailored to the patient's level of understanding as far as possible. Any leaflets should be given purely as back-up, and not instead of an explanation. And if leaflets are to be used, then they should be prepared before the whole thing begins, not tucked away in a file somewhere.

Even so, anyone who hears a diagnosis "cancer" will take in hardly anything after that, so the patient should be given an opportunity to ask any questions at the time, and then to come back as soon as they like to ask any further questions and, if necessary, to hear the whole explanation over again.

Any hospital department involved in breaking bad news should be prepared for all of this, and should have proper systems in place to do it.

It's not incredibly complicated: it requires no special equipment: it just requires healthcare professionals with the ability to understand how important it is to do it right.

If you've ever been given bad news in a hospital, do you remember the occasion? Of course you do. The hospital may break bad news every day, but for any particular patient it will - hopefully - be just a few times in a lifetime.

So it's important to get it right. And, with all the knowledge about how to do it that the medical profession has gained in recent years, it's unforgiveable - yes, totally unforgiveable, no excuses, no sorry-we-were-busy-that-day - - - because if they're often busy, then they ought to be prepared, and if they're never busy, then they ought to do it right.

My friend didn't mention it - it wasn't the time or the place - but actually, he works in Communication Skills teaching.

So he made a mental note of everything that happened. And he'll be writing to complain.

If such a thing ever happens to you, or to your loved ones - and I so hope it won't - please, please, write to complain, naming names, in the strongest possible terms, explaining what was wrong and how you felt, and for changes to be made. Perhaps, eventually, this cack-handed, careless and thoughtless form of consultation will be ended.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Too Many Bond Films

One of our actors rang me this morning with a story about her grandson Joe, who is three and a half.

Joe was taken to the doctor's for his immunisation injection and bore it bravely as the needle went into his arm.

He and his dad came out of the surgery, back into the waiting room. His father had been told they had to stay for about twenty minutes after the injection, just to check that Joe didn't suffer a bad reaction to it.

Joe, on the other hand, was keen to leave.

"We have to wait here for a little while, Joe," insisted his father. "Come on, sit down."

Joe looked at him conspiratorially.

"No, Dad, let's get out of here," he whispered. "I think they're trying to kill me."

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Round Things

In the Olden Days, visitors used to marvel at our family's unusual method of communicating.

"Daphne, could you fetch me the thingy?" my mother would say. "It's behind that other thing. On top of the wotsit."

And I'd go and fetch them, because I knew exactly what she meant.

The Communist did it with the names of famous people.

"You know, Daphne, the one who was in that film with whatisname. The one with the trains. You know, the one who died. And then she died too."

"You mean Brief Encounter? Celia Johnson? Trevor Howard?"

"Yes, I knew you'd know."

Since my mother had her stroke, when she was sixty-eight, she can't think of the names of things quickly, or when she feels under pressure. And at the moment, she can't write things down very easily either, having a broken right shoulder, but she can write with her left hand, given a bit of time.

So when I rang her before I set off home today to ask her if she wanted any shopping, it was a less than ideal situation for her and I had to use all my psychic powers.

"Round things," she said.

I wrote down "tomatoes".

"Long green things."

"Er - - not sure, Mum. Do you mean celery?"

"No, no, long green things. Long. Green."


"Yes, that's right. Squishy stuff."

I wrote down "coleslaw".

"Little yellow things. Tiny."

I wrote down "sweetcorn".

"Green stuff".

I wrote down "lettuce".

"I can't think of anything else."

"Well if you think of anything else whilst I'm driving home, just ring me and leave a message."

"Yes, I will."

The phone rang on my way home. I listened to the message when I reached the supermarket.


She always leaves telephone messages as though they're being broadcast to the nation and as though she'll be penalised for using more words than necessary.

I got the shopping. I added a couple of children's ready meals as she likes those occasionally and the adults' ones are too much for her.

It all seemed to be exactly what she wanted.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

So, what would he say?

So, what would he say?

The Communist, I mean, on the first anniversary of his death.

He'd say "Don't go making yourself miserable by remembering the day I died. I hated anniversaries like that and I never remembered them. Remember all the trouble I got into with the family because I wouldn't have a gravestone for my mother? She was just like me and she didn't want one either. Remember me when I was alive, not for being dead."

He'd say, "Jolly good job I labelled everything in the filing cabinet. Your mother's still putting things behind the clock, isn't she? She hasn't got any better at dealing with things in her old age, has she?"

He'd say, "Did you see on the Nine o'clock News last night about Gordon Brown? Lunacy, I tell you, it's lunacy!" And then, in spite of my evident lack of interest, he'd go on to tell me about it for twenty minutes.

He'd say, "You know how I used to start sentences with When I'm Not Around Any More - - and tell you all about where everything is? Jolly good job I did."

He'd say "Shall I sing a song? Which one would you like?" and then, without waiting for an answer, he'd start straight off with A capital ship for an ocean trip was the Walloping Window Blind! Or, if in political mood - and he often was - it would be Avanti o populo, Alla riscossa! Bandiera rossa! Bandiera rossa!

He'd say, "Look after your mother."

He'd say "Don't be ridiculous. There's no life after death. If I could say anything - and I can't, because I'm dead - I'd just want to be alive again. Because I really enjoyed it."

I miss him.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Every Other Sunday for Very Nearly Ever

My grandmother - the Communist's mother - was known to us as Nanny. In Britain, of course, a nanny is someone who is paid to look after someone else's children. But she wasn't from Britain: she was from Lithuania and I think "Nanny" was her Eastern European interpretation of the British word "Nanna".

Grandad was from Hungary, though had left it at the age of six months. Nanny lived in Lithuania until she was fourteen and so she had a strong accent. It was probably pretty unique: Eastern European Jewish, plus English learned at night school, plus a strong undercurrent of Leeds Factory Girl: the clothing factory where she'd met my Grandad was where she'd learned her conversational English.

When Nanny and Grandad didn't want me to know what they were saying they spoke Yiddish, which is a language that Jewish people speak. It comes originally from mediaeval German. "Not much of a language", said Nanny, who always thought it was inferior to modern German, even though she spoke it every day of her life.

Every other Sunday throughout my childhood we went round to Nanny and Grandad's for tea. They lived in a new 1960s council flat in Harehills. It had a living-room, kitchen, bathroom and one bedroom. I don't think we ever took any photos of it but I can still see the living-room very clearly in my mind's eye - - the green armchairs with cloths over the backs, the glass cabinet for their ornaments, the three-dimensional picture of a waterfall, the heavy old dining table with its embroidered tablecloth.

In the drawers were cards - Nanny loved to play cards - and some board games, and an amazing - to me! - clockwork doll. You wound it up and it crawled along.

We would often play cards, or games, and then we'd watch television for a short time - I saw a lot of The Clangers there on Sunday teatimes with my little brother. This was an animated series of surreal genius about some small knitted creatures who lived on another planet.

And then we'd have tea. And it was always the same. Fried fish cakes. Salad - - lettuce, tomato, cucumber. That was salad in those days: rocket and young spinach and such hadn't been invented, or not in Leeds 8, anyway. Pickled red cabbage, though - I still love it. Bread and butter. Tinned pears or tinned prunes. Cake with cherries in (I hated the cherries but never let on about this: I could tell that Nanny was very proud of this cherry cake). Each dish would be produced, like a conjuring trick, through that Sixties iconic design miracle, the serving hatch.

I loved the comfort of it. Every other Sunday for very nearly ever, with my sweet-natured Nanny admiring everything I did, and rather grumpier Grandad engaged in political debate with the Communist, and my mother playing with my little brother Michael.

Years ago now. They were very proud of the Communist, were my Nanny and Grandad, with his lively, clever wife and his two children and his chemist's shop and his house near Roundhay Park. When the Communist was little they lived in the slums of Leeds. The Communist's dream as a child had been to live in a house near the park and he achieved it in his mid-thirties.

Tomorrow it will be exactly a year since the Communist died. I can hardly believe it.

I have lots of memories of him on special days, of course - - Christmases, birthdays, holidays - but I have a tremendous affection for my memories of those ordinary Sunday afternoons.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Words That Don't Exist

The English language is of course very rich in vocabulary because some comes from Latin roots and some from Germanic roots.

But I'm always surprised at all the words that don't exist.

One such is "merrin" which popped up as my word verification on Silverback's blog.

So where's that word been all these years and how come we never invented it?

It sounds like a proper English word and to me the meaning is obvious - a small amount of alcoholic liquid. Just enough to get you merry: not enough to get you drunk.

"A merrin of ale, good innkeeper!" Where's THAT line in English Literature? Shakespeare coined lots of words - how come he missed that one?

And while we're at it, you know that feeling when you think you left half a cup of coffee somewhere and yet you can't find it? Of course you do!

So how come there's no word for it, then?

Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Great Eight Hundred and Fifty Billion Pounds Giveaway!

The bosses of the Royal Bank of Scotland screwed up big-time some months ago and it all nearly went bust. Luckily it was saved by my generous offer of help. And your offer of help too, if you're British.

"We're so sorry you screwed up," we said, "and our hearts swell with pity for you. Would eight hundred and fifty billion pounds help at all?"

"Yes, please, and thank you very much," said the bankers.

And now, with it coming up to Christmas and all, the bankers need to buy some new decorations, and shoes for their wee bairns, and a new Porsche or two. You know the kind of thing.

So they're giving themselves one and a half billion in bonuses, which seems fair enough, because they've had a bit of stress this year, what with the banks nearly collapsing and everything.

A few cruel people were unpleasant enough to suggest that perhaps these bankers might give up their bonuses for this year, since the British taxpayers had happily handed over eight hundred and fifty billion pounds, which, when you think about it, is really quite a lot.

And the Board of Big Boss Bankers said that this wasn't fair. And, worse, they threatened to resign. Wow, how this scared everyone! Because, if the board were to resign - - er - - well, I'm not sure what would happen, actually. Certainly, if you went out in the street and gave their jobs to the first couple of dozen people you came across, I'm not sure how they could do worse.

So wouldn't it have been good if the threat, "We'll all resign!" had been quickly followed by the phrase, "Okay, resignations all accepted. Goodbye!"?

This is all infuriating but I really had it brought home to me when I heard on the radio yesterday that the steel company Corus are cutting 1,700 jobs in Redcar, in Teesside, which is already one of the least prosperous parts of the country.

The steelworkers were saying things like "There simply are no other jobs round here that we could do," and "I don't know what's going to happen, and just before Christmas, too" and their shocked voices really got to me.

If by any chance I'm made Prime Minister any time soon, I'm going to take the one and a half billion pounds bonuses from the bankers. And I'm going to share it amongst all the people who have been made redundant in Britain this year. I don't know how much they'd get each, but I think it would be quite a lot, actually.

And then I'd send the Board of Big Boss Bankers to live in Redcar for a while. On the dole. Good.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Breaking News

Back we went to the hospital, my Mum and me, this morning. Off to the Fracture Clinic for another X-ray.

The taxi driver arrived five minutes early and this made Mum rush rather, leaving the house - she wouldn't want to keep the taxi waiting!

He was one of those taxi drivers who starts revving the engine as soon as you open the door and I didn't want him driving off until Mum's seat belt was fastened so I fastened hers before I got in the car and then he set off and hurtled down the road like Jensen Button. So he didn't get a tip. My rule on taxi drivers is - - set off before I've got my seat belt on = no tip!

Then he deposited us nicely at the wrong part of the hospital even though I'd told him the right part - -- but I didn't want to stay in his taxi any longer and I do know my way round the hospital pretty well, so I got Mum in a wheelchair and set off down the very, very long corridors.

Mum didn't like this as she thought she should walk, and she thought I'd be too heavy for her to push, all seven stone something of her. So when she saw a porter she nearly jumped out in the hope that he'd take over pushing. I screeched to a halt and came round to the front of the wheelchair and pointed out, rather forcibly, that pushing her was no problem but her trying to jump out most definitely was.

At the Fracture Clinic they know her now and had kindly got her a little dark room to wait in, away from the strip lights that give her migraine.

We waited for an hour and twenty minutes. This Morning was showing on two televisions, with Ricky Tomlinson and Katherine Jenkins as the guests. I haven't the foggiest what was said though as the sound was turned down. I found myself thinking - - well, either have a television that can be heard, or don't have one at all!

So I went through the notes for the session for medical students that I'm helping to run tomorrow. Finally Bright Young Doctor came out. He looked at Mum's arm where the shoulder was operated on and it's healing fine.

"But would you still like her to have another X-ray?" he asked me.

Now then. Doctors are taught always to speak to the patient, not to their accompanying relative. This one didn't entirely follow this rule - - but actually, if he'd asked the same question of Mum she would have said "Oh, no, thank you," and gone home. So there was a time to speak to the daughter instead, and this was it.

I explained that Mum had been complaining that, since she'd fallen onto the settee a couple of days ago, her neck hurts. He looked at her neck and couldn't fine too much wrong. Her ribs hurt too, and she can't cough. He prodded about a bit.

"I think you've cracked a rib," he said. "No point in an X-ray for that though as we can't do anything about it anyway - it will heal on its own."

So off we went for the shoulder X-ray. They know her there too and speeded her through.

Back we came to Bright Young Doctor who put the latest exciting Shoulder Picture up on the screen.

We all looked with interest at the crack that had been mended and which is less obvious than it was.

And then we all looked with interest at the bright new crack a little way down the arm.

Damn. Bright Young Doctor went into the next cubicle to fetch Smoothly Handsome Consultant.

Smoothly Handsome Consultant had met my mother before. He looked into her eyes and put his arm round her.

"So what have you been doing to yourself this time?" he said in "Hello, Little Lady, I will Protect You" tones.

Now my mother's always considered herself to be a bit of a feminist and she did the only possible thing. Which seemed to be to flutter her eyelashes, look coy, take his hand and flirt like mad.

"The new break doesn't need an operation. We'll put on a different kind of sling that will keep the arm a bit straighter. And then come back and see me in three weeks."

He made it sound like a Hot Date. My mother looked at him adoringly. She likes Hungarians. Of course, my grandfather was Hungarian so perhaps it was the Hungarian connection that drew her to The Communist.

We got a taxi home.

Of course, we still don't know why my mother keeps falling over, so I'm going to take her to the GP next week and we'll take it from there. I'm just relieved that we got through this morning without too much stress. I was pretty sure, yesterday, that there was something further wrong with her, and at least the new break goes some way to explaining why she was so under-the-weather yesterday.

Thank you all for your helpful comments on yesterday's post - - I have taken them all on board!

Putting it All Together

My mother has somehow banged her broken shoulder again, and with it some ribs and her neck's hurting too.

The most worrying thing is that she doesn't know how she did it. "I think I did it on my way to bed," she said.

So tonight she's sleeping in the downstairs bedroom so she doesn't have to go up the stairs. She thinks that having one arm in a sling is unbalancing her.

Hmmmmm. Possibly. But, although she says she just banged her shoulder, there were no witnesses so perhaps she actually fell again.

Perhaps she tripped. And perhaps she tripped the first time, when she broke the shoulder.

But perhaps she fell the first time because of a sudden loss of blood pressure - certainly, when she collapsed in the cafe after her first fall, her blood pressure was very low. And perhaps it's just happened again, at home. They did try to keep her in hospital a bit longer to monitor it but of course she wouldn't have it and insisted on coming home.

But just before she collapsed in the cafe, she became very unresponsive - I talked to her, her eyes were open but she just didn't register anything.

Perhaps this was because of the low blood pressure. But - - and here's my most worrying thought - perhaps it was because of a TIA (or transient ischaemic attack, meaning a small stroke). After all, she had a big stroke when she was sixty-eight. And perhaps, when she banged her arm this second time, she had another one.

There's another thing, too. When she had the original fall, on the steps of Park Hotel in Tenby a month ago, she banged her head and cut her nose and it all bled a lot.

But any possible head injury had no medical attention at all, because my mother was yelling her head off and trying to discharge herself from the hospital. But what if a head injury was a contributory factor in the yelling her head off? Certainly, she's had occasional such moments in the past but never so much or so often.

I rang the Intermediate Care Team and they have arranged for Mum to have another X-ray in the hospital tomorrow, to see if she's done any more damage to the shoulder, and I'm going to take her.

I will take advantage of the fact that she's lost one of her hearing aids in the hospital to try to tell a fuller story and to voice all my worries about her.

But, at the moment, because my mother was so difficult to deal with when she was in hospital, it doesn't seem to me as if there's anyone except me who's trying to put the whole picture together.

And, of course, my mother's not usually difficult - she's extremely warm, kind and sweet-natured. She is, however, claustrophobic, and she hates hospitals. What if this claustrophobic-and-hates-hospitals theory might be covering up something else going on?

But tomorrow it's the X-ray department. Will they be willing to listen to this story? And if they are, will they want to keep Mum in for observation? And if so, what happens then? The nurse who booked the X-ray said that Mum became extremely upset and angry at the mere thought of visiting the hospital, though when I saw Mum later she seemed fine about it as she'd realised she was only going to Outpatients.

Now look, I know that I have, perhaps, more knowledge of medicine than many people, even though I have no medical training, because I've done so many medical roleplays on so many subjects. And I speak fluent Doctor, because I've worked with them such a lot.

But really, it shouldn't be down to me, in any way, should it? Surely somebody should be asking some questions about what's going on and trying to put it all together? I just have a feeling that by the end of tomorrow's visit all that will have happened will be some more X-rays added to her file and a little note that says "Daughter thinks she's a bit confused".