Sunday, February 28, 2010

Shopping with Style

It's been such a busy week and suddenly Sunday was upon me and there were lots of people, all very pleasant, coming round for lunch today.

I just hadn't had any time to think about or plan this and therefore the only thing to do was to go swimming. So I did.

And after that, I thought, I'll just go to the Marks and Spencers food store and buy lots of food and cobble together a big run-and-grab-it type meal with lots of different things, in the hope that there'd be something that everyone would like.

One thing I did remember before I set off for the swimming pool was to grab a handful of carrier bags so as to help save the planet and also avoid having to buy Marks and Spencer's expensive ones.

So, after swimming, I set off to Marks and Spencer's. Although it's only just over a mile from our house, it's in a Posher Postcode than ours and is generally full of people rattling their jewellery at each other and buying large quantities of extremely expensive food.

As I walked through the door and noted everyone in their Sunday best with their designer clothes and immaculate make-up and costly handbags and such, I noticed what I was wearing.

Which was - not surprisingly - the clothes I wear to go to the swimming pool - and to nowhere else, generally.

Very old black fleece and tracksuit bottoms, vintage about 1987. Bare feet - because I can never be bothered putting socks on in the pool as it's just too difficult with damp feet - and a pair of Crocs sandals that have seen better days.

My finishing touches were, of course, the wet hair and the screwed-up bundle of carrier bags, all contained in a large plastic bag from the less-than-couture Matalan.

It was not my finest moment, visually, and - not for the first time - I was glad I'm not famous as I would not have enjoyed seeing the resulting photographs on the front pages of the tabloids tomorrow.

However, they didn't throw me out of the shop, I'm pleased to say, and everyone seemed to enjoy the lunch. Phewwwww.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Waiting for Spring

Froggie's an old cat now. She's very small and very cute.

One of my very few strange psychic experiences came when I met her for the first time.

It was in the house of my friend David, and she was on the stairs. She had been a stray, and my friend Carry, who lived there then, had taken her in.

She looked up and me and said "I want to come and live with you."

How she said it I don't know, but I heard it in my head. And I replied, "And I want you to come and live with me."

I mentioned this to nobody except Stephen in case they thought I was bonkers (I reckoned he probably knew anyway).

A week later Carry had to go to London for a few days - - would I mind looking after her cat Froggie? (named thus because they found her next to a frog).

So Froggie arrived for a few days, in 1999, and has been here ever since, because Carry had a new baby and thought it would be better not to own a cat as well. Here is Froggie, a week or two ago, contemplating the snow:

But now she's had enough of the cold weather. She hardly goes out these days, preferring to stay in a selection of warm places indoors - she spends a lot of time in the identical place to this photograph, on the windowsill on top of the radiator. It's Cat Heaven - - sitting in the warm, quite high up and in a good position to glare at any passing cats outside.

But most of the time, she's had enough of the winter. She's sleeping till Spring.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Not Saying It

My brother Michael and his wife Deb and their two children Daisy and Flo are here, visiting from Amsterdam, where they live, until Sunday. I haven't seen much of them so far though as I've been working away from home such a lot this week.

My mother's having a great time. They went to the Museum today and she loved it. I am happy that she's had such a good time, but sad that I don't often enough give her such great times.

"And did I tell you we went to Casa Mia for lunch yesterday? It was wonderful! I wish you could have been there! It was like a party!"

Instantly I'm furious. I open my mouth to say it.

"Mum, I hate parties! I have hated parties all my life! You always say it was like a party as your top indicator of enjoyment - - well, to me they are pure misery and I wish you could understand, just for five minutes, how much I've always hated them and how painful I have always found it when you can't understand this."

But I didn't say it of course. Instead I said "Well we're going to an Indian restaurant tomorrow and I expect you'll enjoy that too."

I don't know if my seething anger was obvious to her - I don't think so and I hope not. Why can't I just get over it, and understand that she's eighty-five, and that there are some things she will always say, and that she can't help it, and that it doesn't matter? Although I didn't say the paragraph above, I can't bear myself for wanting to say such things, to the kindest, most well-meaning mother in the world.

Sometimes I really, really hate myself and this was one of those times.

But You Seem Like a Pro To Me

"Well I suppose you're from an am-dram background but you seem like a pro to me," said one of the university teachers.

I think it was meant as a compliment but actually it displayed a wealth of lack of knowledge and I had to work hard at not being offended by it!

What I am is a Simulated Patient. I work from a brief, usually to improvise the role of a patient for the training or assessment of all different kinds of healthcare professionals. So, for example, they might need to practise taking a medical history, or explaining a procedure or - at a more advanced level - talking to a patient who's very depressed, or breaking bad news.

I am given the details of the topic to be covered, and how they want the character I'm playing to be - - nervous, calm, chatty, quiet - - that kind of thing.

And then the healthcare professional (medical students, nurses, pharmacists, dentists, physiotherapists etc) has a ten-minute conversation with me, improvising in the role of that patient. And then, in a teaching session, there's a lot of detailed feedback about what they did well, and what they might do differently.

There is no actual way to practise what you would say in any situation other than actually to say the words.

That's the essence of it.

Now then, many Simulated Patients are professional actors, and some aren't. I'm not: I used to be a teacher of English and Drama. But I've been working part-time as a Simulated Patient since - er - 1985 and there aren't many medical topics that I haven't worked on. There's no emotional state, no embarrassing ailment that I haven't done a roleplay about! I'm very proud of this work - the learners find it very useful and I find it very rewarding to do.

And I think that what I am when doing this work - (draws self up to full height in a rather pompous way) - is a professional roleplayer. It's got nothing to do with the "performance" element of acting, in that the focus is on the learner, not on my performance. I try to make it as real as possible and I'm always pleased when the learner gets really absorbed in it and says afterwards that it feels real.

But I suppose what I didn't like about what the teacher said today, was the implication that people who do this work are somehow "amateurs" - - - and oh look, the compliment was that I "seemed" professional. Well, so I should - I've been doing it - and getting paid for it - for years!

Though actually, amateur drama can be great fun and yes, I used to be very involved with it - though not usually acting. I've never enjoyed acting from a script. I can read a script, aloud, pretty well - - but then, unlike real actors, I just never get any better.

When I see professional actors rehearse I'm always amazed by how they can take a line that's written down and make it sound as though they've just invented it. I can't do that. I am fine improvising - I can do that until the cows come home. But I don't like saying lines from a script and I feel awkward all the time I'm on a stage.

So I was usually backstage, and sometimes I wrote Christmas shows for the group I was with, and I loved that too. Oh yes I did!

As you may have noticed, I'm very protective and proud of my roleplay work and actually I think it requires a high level of skill. That sounds as though I'm boasting - and perhaps I am, I'm certainly up on my High Horse of Pomposity this evening - but I just hate the implication that it's somehow an inferior kind of "acting".

I was planning to write something funny about it, but instead I've just gone off on a rant. Pah. It's been a long and tiring week and any wit I ever had lies in a crumpled heap on the floor.

But, on the topic of amateur drama - four thousand miles away in Florida - Silverback's blog post is extremely entertaining so I suggest you read that now, and I hope I'll have climbed down off my high horse by tomorrow.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

From Shipley to Sheffield

Shipley Health Centre is a smart new building in the middle of all the old stone-built houses of Shipley, and it's there that I was working this morning.

It's only thirteen miles from home but actually I allowed an hour and a quarter to get there, as it's a very trafficy thirteen miles, and I got there early but not amazingly early. The health centre has a reasonable-sized car park - however, I've always found it full. But there's a car park for the swimming pool next door and when I've worked there previously, that's where I've parked.

This morning that was full too. Lots of meetings going on at the health centre, apparently.

So I parked in the car park for the supermarket next door. But you can only park there for two hours and after that they give you a parking ticket. Sighh.

So in the first part of the morning my mind was never free from a feeling of "I must make sure I move my car". And in the coffee break I dashed out and finally found a car park up the road - - and I'll use that one for any future trips there.

The people running the session made sure I could go in good time and I was grateful to them as I had to go off to Sheffield for a different roleplay session this afternoon. It was forty-two miles though built-up Bradford and then across and down the M1 motorway.

I knew that parking would be fine in Sheffield as it's a huge building with a huge car park. And I arrived there nicely in time - - to find that a lot of the car park was covered in scaffolding for some building work, and that the number of parking spaces was greatly reduced, and that every single parking space was taken.

An investigation of the nearby side roads showed cars everywhere - - in every conceivable parking spot and on all the double yellow lines too. There was simply nowhere to put my car.

I rang reception at the building where I was working and explained this, and explained that really I was integral to the work this afternoon, and what did they suggest?

"Is there really not a single space free?" she asked.

"Only one," I said, "and that's for the caretaker and it says that nobody must ever park in it ever or a terrible yet unspecified punishment will follow".

"Park in it!" she said triumphantly, "and I'll take the consequences".

I parked in it. There never did appear to be any consequences, unless the caretaker is putting a blazing newspaper through her letter box at this very moment.

I really enjoyed the work I did today and I think it all went well. But I'm so fed up of the lack of car parking in the NHS venues.

Now then, of course, you might say that I should travel by public transport. But there's simply no way I could have got from one job to the other in time by public transport. Bus to the centre of Leeds. Train to Shipley. Bus to the Health Centre. Bus back to Shipley train station. Train to Sheffield. Bus to the venue in Sheffield. Bus back to the train station in Sheffield. Train to Leeds. Bus home.

It just wouldn't have been possible in any way. I finished in Shipley at twelve and had to start work in Sheffield before two.

And if I got public transport to many of these half-day jobs, it would take almost all day to get there and back - - and I am only paid for a half-day's work, so - to me - it doesn't seem fair if it takes all day.

No, I don't know what the answer is. I'd just like to be able to give all my concentration to the work I'm doing, and not to have to spend so much time worrying about parking the car.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Crying Baby

I've just been doing a day of working with qualified doctors on the theme of Safeguarding Children.

I was playing a mother with a baby that cries all the time and is very likely to have been hit or shaken by her father.

The doctors knew that, morally and legally, their job as GP was to get the baby to be seen by a paediatrician at the hospital immediately and they were learning to find ways to persuade the mother to take the baby - - or, failing that, tell her that the baby was going to hospital with or without her agreement.

As the mother, I was arguing that they were only bruises, and that they weren't serious, and that the toddler had probably crashed into the baby with his toy car. The doctors weren't having any of it. "I'm paid to be a pessimist" said one of them. They were all determined on one thing - the baby was going to hospital, now, with no delays.

And that was the point of the course they were on - for them to learn to recognise a potentially serious situation, and deal with it effectively. And they were great.

On the radio news on the way home, I heard that Dr Sabah Al-Zayyat, one of the doctors who examined the child known as Baby P is "suicidal" and described as unfit to defend herself at a GMC Fitness to Practise panel.

Baby P - murdered by his mother, her boyfriend and their lodger - had very serious injuries at the time he was seen by this doctor, including a broken back and broken ribs.

However, she didn't carry out a full check-up because he was "miserable and cranky".

Well - - yes. Probably because he had a broken back and broken ribs.

I know that hindsight is wonderfully clear. But that doctor failed that child completely. Whatever the parents were saying, or whatever state the child was in, it was her duty to look for the facts, and she didn't.

I hope that the doctors I was working with today will not be making any similar mistakes. They were all very thorough, and very committed, and I don't think they will.

Of course, I already knew the point of the course that these doctors were on - - but this news item served to bring it home to me. They are really working at the sharp end, and I have the utmost respect for the ones who put the effort in to do it right.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Like Leaves on a Tree

Today was the funeral of the husband of an old friend, in Settle, North Yorkshire.

When I was a child we always drove through Settle on the way to visit my relatives in Barrow-in-Furness. There's a bypass now, which is a good thing for the traffic in Settle but it means it's a few years since I was there.

Settle is a delightful market town amongst the hills and I've always liked it. But it also has a sad association for me. My second cousin Lynda was killed in a cave-diving accident, a few days before Christmas in 1982. She was thirty-five, married with a toddler son. We found ourselves driving through Settle to the funeral in Barrow. Settle was all warmth and cheer with Christmas lights everywhere and Father Christmas in the town square. The full tragedy of Lynda's death hit me suddenly and I've always remembered that moment.

Today Settle was full of winter sunshine. Most of the snow had gone but streaks of it remained in the shady places. There were snowdrops all over the churchyard.

I was with my friend David and we arrived early, so had a coffee in a cafe. Twenty minutes before the funeral David said that he was just going to get his hair cut. I have known David for many years and hence I knew that this would work out fine, so we agreed we'd meet in the church.

Ten minutes later, David arrived next to me in the pew, with shorter, neater hair. Don't try this, folks - it will all go horribly wrong for you. You have to be David to succeed with this sort of thing and he's put in years of practice.

There was a very big congregation there and it was a lovely service, full of joy for the life of the man who had died. His son and daughter both spoke very movingly about him ("My dad could do anything"). It reminded me of just over a year ago when my brother and I were speaking at the Communist's funeral. I'd never be one to say "I know how you feel" but oh boy, I could empathise with them.

We sang "Immortal, invisible, God only wise" and "The Lord is my shepherd". I love singing hymns, I always have done, and I knew almost all the words to both of these. I was doing fine until I got to "We blossom and flourish like leaves on a tree, And wither and perish, but nought changeth Thee". Then I couldn't see and couldn't sing for the next verse.

I have known the family for a long time - thirty-seven years or thereabouts. I've known my friend's children since they were tiny - - and one of them has - incredibly to me - just become a grandfather.

It made me think - as funerals do make you think - of the things that have happened in our family too, good and bad, over the last two or three years. Sometimes I think it's a good thing that you don't know what's going to happen next.

"I always think that I won't be able to cope" I said to David, "but then I find that I generally can."

I expect that's true of all of us.

We came out into the sunshine, and drove back to Leeds through the beautiful Yorkshire Dales countryside.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

All White Now

I expect it's all my fault, because I started Spring-cleaning yesterday.

I just looked round the kitchen and thought - - - ewwwww, yes, I know I have been working very hard recently, but I don't think it's been at housework.

I'm not saying it's a long time since I pulled the microwave right out and cleaned behind it - - but I found a note back there that Olli wrote whilst at school - - and Olli will graduate from university this summer.

Anyway, it's a lot better now. Should the Clean Police arrive to inspect it this afternoon, I will probably be let off with a caution.

In the Olden Days, of course, the doctor who lived in this house had a maid, and I don't seem to have one. Damn.

Anyway, of course, all this Spring Cleaning lark served only to bring on one thing, and that was proof it's still winter. Here's our front garden today.

Olli and I bravely went off in the blizzard to the swimming pool for half past eight. Mum had been going to come but fortunately decided the path might be too slippery - she seems to have belatedly wised up to the fact that falling over's not a good idea for her.

And the roads were slippery - there hadn't been much traffic. We swam our mile and the pool was blissfully uncrowded. On the way back, down the hill to Oakwood, the car began to slide gently - - luckily not fast, as I was going really slowly. Fortunately the lights turned green just as we reached the bottom so I could turn left and drive away as if I had done the whole thing on purpose.

Soon after we got home, I was watching the birds on the bird table (which I have supplied with seed, peanuts, dried mealworms and small pieces of fat, thus attracting every bird in North Leeds) we heard strange scratching noises outside the back door.

What strange animal could this be?

A quick look gave us the answer.

Yes, things are back to normal, after Mum's broken shoulder. More than three flakes of snow and she's out there, shovelling it from the steps, clearing the paths.

"But Mum, didn't you say you were worried about falling over?"

"Ah yes, but now I'm out in it I can tell it's not very slippy snow. Though I should put some salt on these steps, if I were you."

When Mum said she was thinking of going swimming, the physiotherapist suggested that she might start by bobbing about for a bit in the baby pool. My mother's contemptuous expression as she related this to me was most entertaining - and, of course, she has been several times and managed to swim pretty well and can do all the strokes, if a bit slowly.

The physiotherapist never mentioned shovelling snow as good excercise for a nearly-eighty-six-year-old with a recently-broken shoulder. But I expect it is. And I'm afraid we can probably expect more snow, because I'm carrying on with the Spring-cleaning today.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Goodbye British Gas

Apparently British Gas have put their prices down and they want me to go back to them from my current supplier. "Could you tell me who that is, please?" asked the woman who rang me.

"No," I said, "and how did you get my mobile number? If you want to send me some information - because clearly you have every detail of my life - kindly send it to me by post. And now I'll have to go because I'm busy."

Indeed I was busy, and I didn't want to speak to them then. And I haven't really wanted to speak to them ever since.

But since then - - and it was at least a week ago - they have rung me three or four times a day, always from the same 0800 number.

The mobile rings twice, and when I don't immediately answer, they ring off. The first time they called, I happened to be holding my mobile in my hand and so could answer it.

But every time since, it has been in my bag or somewhere where it might take three rings to get to it.

But they don't give it as many as three rings, and they don't leave a message. They just ring back a few hours later, and let it ring twice again.

So far I haven't bothered searching for how I can complain about this - if you happen to know, do tell. But I'm hoping that, pretty soon, I will manage to get to the phone in time to answer. And then the person on the other end of the phone will get anger, biting sarcasm and finally - if they're still on the line - the story of how British Gas once took twenty-one visits to sort out the central heating system and managed to introduce dry rot into the house along the way.

Goodbye, British Gas. No, I won't be going back.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Wintry Olympics

I'm quite partial to watching the Winter Olympics. There's something soothing about watching a load of blokes hurling themselves off the top of a mountain on a pair of skis and swooshing all the way to the bottom. Especially when the scenery is very pretty - as it is here - and it looks very cold, and I'm in my nice warm living room with a Chinese takeaway.

"It's an accident waiting to happen!" said the commentator, displaying great insight - yup, this lark of hurtling down an icy slope at a hundred miles an hour can really be a bit tricky if it all goes wrong.

I've never been skiing. My body has always known it just can't do it, sadly. Even watching it makes my knees hurt. I have a lousy sense of balance. I'm sure it's great fun once you can do it but all that falling over in the snow - which can really be quite cold, you know - just doesn't appeal.

Lots of people go skiing for the social life too - - the apres-ski as I think they call it. Because I don't drink and hate being in a large group of people that doesn't appeal to me either.

Oh yes, and there's another form of apres-ski which - I have it on good authority but can say no more - can be particularly rewarding if you're a male skiing instructor. But no, that wouldn't be my reason for a skiing holiday either.

Anyway, I'd like to see a bit more creativity brought into the Winter Olympics. Sport for people who don't like going down slippy things very very fast.

International Snowman Building Competition. A timed sport - - you have an hour and can compete in one of several categories. Solo Height Snowman. Team Height Snowman. Solo Creative Snowman. Team Creative Snowman. That kind of thing.

How about Footprints in the Snow? Each international team of four is given a patch of virgin snow of a certain size (I said virgin snow! You've gone back to thinking about the skiing instructors again) and an hour to make the best set of footprints - - but there mustn't be any other footprints round about - - a bit like corn circles, but in the snow.

I won't be taking part. Too cold. I do like the basic component of snow, though. After it's been melted and then heated to about thirty degrees Centigrade.

So I'm waiting for the Olympic Sport of Bobbing About in the Breakers at the Edge of the Adriatic Sea on a Hot Summer's Day. I was pretty good at it, last August, and I could be really dedicated: I'd be prepared to put in the effort and I hope you'll all support me.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

One Born Every Minute

I can't keep away from programmes such as One Born Every Minute, which is about the everyday life of a maternity ward in Southampton.

I just have to see the title and my fingers are pressing record as fast as they can, even though I know that watching such programmes may perhaps not be such a good idea.

It took me a while to discover this series so last night's was the first episode that I saw. It featured nineteen-year-old Chavette (that wasn't her name but I can't remember what it was so am being cruelly descriptive) and her pleasant though puddingy boyfriend and her tell-it-like-it-is mother.

Puddingy Boyfriend was trying to find a job, but with little success. He quoted us his GCSE results which were Ds, Es and Unclassified. I felt they probably weren't helping him. He had had a sad-sounding upbringing and, as he put it, was angry with everyone.

Chavette, as Sister explained, was one of the very young mothers who have never experienced real pain before - and it came as a bit of a shock. Some women, said Sister, are very stoical throughout. Chavette wasn't one of them. She yelled, screamed, swore and generally created merry hell until they gave her an epidural. Finally the baby's heartrate dipped and they did an emergency Caesarean section and produced a baby which - we in the audience knew - was really not going to have the best start in life. Puddingy Boyfriend, who had looked nothing but puzzled throughout, smiled.

At the same time, we were following the story of the hilariously-ironically named Joy and her husband. Joy was perhaps the grumpiest woman ever to have a baby. She was diabetic and was having her labour induced. It was her first baby, at the age of forty, and really she didn't sound too keen. "I've never been maternal".

The hospital was having one of those glorious mix-ups that hospitals do so well. She had ordered her lunch upstairs on the ward but had now been brought downstairs to the delivery suite. Upstairs had been told she had gone home. It took an hour and a half to find someone and persuade them that she still existed and needed some lunch - - and she was diabetic for goodness' sake! At one point she got the receptionist to ring through to upstairs and ask where the lunch was. Joy asked what would happen now.

"I've done all I can," said the receptionist with a dismissive wave of the hand.

If I were the receptionist's manager, that wave on its own would have been a sacking offence.

It was on occasions like this, during the worst bits of my own gloomy hospital experiences, that I realised that no kind of reasoning would work. If I'd have been Joy I would have given up the grumpiness and turned to the Loud and Prolonged Screaming, because it's the only thing that makes some staff realise that you need attention NOW.

And actually, of course, her grumpiness could well have been a sign of low blood sugar, and I think that the staff were positively negligent in leaving her without food in this way. She did have a Vague Husband but he didn't seem to think he should help - his role seemed to consist entirely of pacing the floor and looking a bit blank.

We'll find out how Joy's story continues next week. Though she did finally get her lunch and cheered up a bit.

How did I feel about it all?

Well, I have had two experiences of childbirth. The first one was of premature labour at 25 weeks of pregnancy, where everyone denied that I could possibly be in labour until exactly two minutes before my baby was born. He died three weeks later and I was ill for nearly a year.

So that was, without any trace of exaggeration, a total nightmare.

The second time was when I went into labour with Olli, at 36 weeks pregnant. I was not too worried as I was pretty sure that this time the baby would be okay.

But because Olli was the wrong way round - - sideways!!! - - I had an emergency Caesarean in the middle of the night, under general anaesthetic. Olli was in the Special Care Baby Unit - though fine - and I was on the floor above. And because the consultant was away somewhere, and nobody else could authorise it, I couldn't possibly be taken to see my baby until the consultant came back, late in the afternoon of the following day.

And this, I tell you, was WRONG.

So how did I feel, watching poor Chavette screaming the place down? Envious, as a matter of fact - strange though it may seem - and please, if you had a horrific childbirth experience don't think I'm making light of it. But she was given her baby immediately, and at least she felt involved in the whole process.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Bit of a Scam Revisited

Many bloggers get far more comments than I do but the comments I do get are generally interesting, witty, and very often both.

The blog post that gets the most "hits" seem to be one I wrote ages ago about the Farne Islands - A Red and White Striped Lighthouse.

But the one that has the most comments is one I wrote on September 20th last year, and it's title was A Bit of a Scam.

It was about what purported to be a charity collection bag that came through the door: here it is:

It was for the Little Treasures Children's Trust and I had deep suspicions that most of the money raised would be for profit and very little of it for charity.

You can read my original post here.

It continues to get comments every so often and almost all of them back my suspicions: many of the readers have done further research.

Actually, it's not the fact that they're collecting unwanted goods and making money out of it that bothers me - in the Olden Days the rag-and-bone man would do just the same thing: and I think that Leeds is probably the last place on Earth where they exist and where you can still, occasionally, hear the cry of "Rag - - - - Bone!"

It's the fact that they're apparently lying and leading you to believe (unless you read the small print in a deeply suspicious way, like I did) that all the profits will go to charity. I think that's just plain WRONG.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

In My Mind's Eye Clinic

I knew there was an Eye Clinic on the ground floor of the hospital. I went there many times with the Communist.

I would trundle him in his wheelchair, and buy him a coffee and a newspaper, and chat with him while we waited to see the consultant. The Communist had suddenly lost all the vision in one of his eyes and he wasn't pleased about it, though the other one still worked. He was hoping that they'd be able to do something about it.

But in the middle of the visits, he got pneumonia and died, back in December 2008.

To me, the Eye Clinic was locked into that period of time and somehow I never thought that it would still be there.

Back in September last year - on what would have been the Communist's eighty-sixth birthday - I had an appointment at a different hospital to check for Diabetic Retinopathy. This is when diabetes does damage to your retina and it can lead to blindness.

Silverback kindly gave me a lift, in case they did any tests that would mean that I couldn't see too well afterwards. Three years ago, on my first visit there, they put eye drops in my eyes to make the pupils bigger. To cut a long and rather thrilling story short, I fainted dead away and felt horribly ill for the rest of the day. So for the following two years, I explained that I had some kind of allergy to the drops and after lots of exclaiming and saying they'd never heard of it, they looked it up and found it was a known - though rare - reaction.

So they did the test without the eye drops and actually could see fine and all was well.

But this year they said they were no longer allowed to do it without the drops, in case they told me it was fine, and it wasn't, and I sued them.

So they said I'd have to go to the Eye Clinic instead, and cruelly turned Silverback and me away, and we had to go and have lunch in a pub instead. Traumatic, eh?

Some months later, this was the appointment for the Eye Clinic.

For some reason, I just didn't make the connection. It never occurred to me that I had an appointment for the Eye Clinic on the ground floor - - and it was always going to be the identical Eye Clinic that I used to come to with the Communist.

So when I arrived - by taxi, since Silverback is currently sitting under a palm tree in Florida - I was rather shocked. The same receptionist was there and the same Incredibly Tall Man working behind her. What - - - the Eye Clinic still there, still going on, when the Communist is dead?

I had that Eye Clinic locked away in 2008 and I was very confused.

Pretty soon I was called in to see a nurse.

"Right, I'll just put the drops in," she said.

So I explained that the reason I was here was because I couldn't have the drops and this was why I'd been sent to this specialist Eye Clinic. She looked at me in surprise and tutted a bit.

"Oh, no, I don't think they'll be able to do the examination without the drops," she said. "but you can wait and see the consultant."

I waited in the next waiting place round the corner, where I used to put the Communist's wheelchair on the end of the line of chairs, and I looked at the gap where it wasn't, and welled up with tears.

After about half an hour, one of the consultants called my name and I at once recognised him as the one who'd been seeing the Communist.

He's Irish and like an Irish Tourist Board advert for Genial Irishman who's Kissed the Blarney Stone. The Communist always thought he was great.

"You used to treat my Dad," I said, "and he thought you were great."

"I miss my Dad every day," he said.

I told him my story, about how everyone insisted that I couldn't have the test without the drops, but how I really rather dreaded having the drops, and how it was very unclear what could be done about it.

"Well, I know what I'm going to do," he said, "I'm going to have a good look in your eyes."

He did.

"You have no signs at all of diabetic retinopathy," he said, "but you can have a more thorough test with the drops if you wish."

"No, I'll take your word for it," I said.

"And please come back in a year and I'll look again," he said.

He was lovely - warm and delightful.

But although Mr O'Leprechaun didn't dispute my "allergic to the drops" story, I didn't discuss it with him either.

I was talking to Silverback later by the wonders of the Interclacker, and he said that in America they have some kind of computer system for examining the eyes of people who can't have the drops (sorry, Silverback, I have not passed on your explanation very well but I expect you know by now what I'm like with all things technical).

And indeed, since I mentioned this, several people have said to me that they can't tolerate the drops either.

So why did the medical staff I've encountered over the past few years all look at me blankly when I mentioned it? It may be rare - - but it doesn't seem to be that rare. I'm not sure whether it's a case of the NHS not understanding about things that are out of the ordinary (which can sometimes happen) or whether it's just another example of medical staff assuming the patient is completely misguided. Answers on a postcard, please. And because I don't have Diabetic Retinopathy, I'll probably be able to read it.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Not Another Boy

I was going to write about something else but it will just have to wait.

I've just been watching a programme which I recorded a couple of weeks ago: Eight Boys and Wanting a Girl.

It was about various sets of parents - - crucially, the mothers - - who had given birth to several children, all boys, and who now obsessively wanted a girl and were trying all sorts of methods to get one.

Some of them were trying all sorts of dubious remedies found on the internet. A few, who had lots and lots of money, were trying something called PGD which stands for Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis. It's a bit like in vitro fertilisation - - you take some eggs from the woman, fertilise them with the husband's sperm, wait a bit to see if any of them are the required gender, and then put the ones of the correct gender in the woman's womb and hope that they turn into babies.

It's banned in this country, though legal in the USA, apparently, and in other European countries too.

The programme was one of those very "surface" documentaries which never thought to ask - - why is it banned in Britain?

Anyway, we saw a woman called Very Rich and Extremely Stupid - - okay, perhaps that wasn't her name but it's what I'm calling her - - who had had four boys, but who refused to marry her partner until he had given her a girl: it's the sperm that determines the gender, of course.

For some reason, instead of saying the sensible thing, which would have been "Goodbye, you stupid selfish cow" he went along with her wishes. She went to Spain to have PGD and then gave birth to twin girls, identically dressed in frills and flounces and spending much of their time clothes shopping with their mother. Heaven help them if they'd have fancied playing with a bit of Meccano. Once she'd had the girls, she married the partner and described her life as "perfect".

Not, of course, that I'm objecting to girls liking traditional "girl" things or vice versa with boys. It's just that some girls don't, and the pressure on these twins to be all things girly was intense.

There was another woman who had four boys and was pregnant and became really depressed when she found out it was another boy. How horrible for the four existing boys, who must surely have picked up the vibe that they were somehow second-best.

True, most of the women featured in this programme said they felt guilty about their obsessive desire for a girl. "And so you should!" I shouted at the screen.

Firstly, why is PGD banned in Britain? Because, if you ask me, it's a slippery slope. Look what's happened in China, where male was the preferred gender and families were limited to one child. Mysteriously, in spite of the odds being roughly fifty-fifty, a huge number of families seemed to have only boy babies. What happened to all the girls? - - - Exactly.

Perhaps there's a case for being able to choose the gender if the family is prone to a horrific disease that only affects one gender. That's the only reason I think it should happen. But the disease would have to be pretty horrific, because I know perfectly well that some people - if they could choose - would say they only wanted embryos implanting that had, for example, blonde hair.

I've had to think more about gender than most parents, perhaps. My first child, a boy, was born prematurely and died after three weeks. My second child was assigned female at birth, brought up as a girl, but then concluded that he is male. And yes, I have found it hard to adjust, though I'm getting there - - but that was because I had believed that he was female, it wasn't because I "wanted a girl".

D'you know what, I was just grateful to have a child, and will always be so. I would love that child no matter what gender that child was, and would never have had a preference. So many people - male and female - want children and never have them.

So when people who have several healthy children are obsessively miserable because they want one of a different gender - -- well, it makes me angry. I know they can't, perhaps, help their feelings but they CAN help what they do about it - - - and telling a television documentary all about it, so their wrong-gender children can see it all, is just bad.

I know I watched it. And I shouldn't have.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Back in the Swim

Whilst my mother's shoulder, which she broke at the beginning of November, has been mending, she has had a physiotherapist visiting very frequently.

Usually it's been a young man who has taken time with her, chatted to her, admired the fact that she can lie down on the floor and leap to her feet like someone half her age (which is 85), demonstrated all the exercises and generally given her confidence.

He never made her any false promises - - he didn't suggested she'd be in the Olympic backstroke team any time soon, though, as I have mentioned before, she might have been once in the 1930s if Adolf Hitler hadn't dropped a bomb on the swimming pool where she lived.

But without giving any false reassurance, he gave her confidence, and she worked very hard on all the exercises, and her shoulder improved rapidly. In other words, he gave an excellent demonstration of all the good communication skills that healthcare professionals need.

Then, one day last week, a different physiotherapist came.

I was in our office and could see from the window that she was Mrs-Brisk-and-Efficient by the way she got out of the car. But I was busy and I just left her to visit Mum and went over later to see what had happened.

My mother was really upset. This new lady had greeted Mum with "Well, you know that shoulder's never going to recover, don't you?" She didn't demonstrate the exercises, just wrote them down. She didn't engage in any conversation and left as soon as she could.

Perhaps she was just having a bad day. But my mother certainly was, after she'd gone. Mum felt her whole attitude was "Why do you need the shoulder to GET any better, at your age?"

My mother was upset for the rest of the day and ended up feeling very demoralised and as though it wouldn't be worth doing all the exercises.

"I'm going to ring and complain," I said. I just won't let anything like that pass.

My mother brightened. "No," she said, "I'll do it."

And she did! She rang the next day and said she'd felt completely put down by this physiotherapist, and she said she didn't want to see her again.

So whether they'll send the previous one back again, or a different one, or whether they'll just put her in the "difficult old lady" bracket and not send her any physiotherapist at all, I don't know.

But meanwhile, she came swimming with me this morning. She was a bit nervous beforehand and mislaid her purse on the way there - - twice! Even though I said she didn't need it - she gets in free anyway.

But once she was in the water she was instantly at home. "I can do everything!" she said in delight. Breast stroke, front crawl and even the dreaded backstroke where I have to watch her like a hawk so she doesn't crash into the ends of the pool. She was swimming slowly, granted - - but she stayed in for nearly the whole hour, even though we'd arranged that if she wanted to get out early I'd either come with her or meet her in the cafe.

She got cold in the middle of it, went and stood in a hot shower for a while and came back in again. Every time she stopped swimming, I saw her chatting to someone, and she loved that too.

She's coming with me again tomorrow. That physiotherapist has a lot to learn.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Confused Farewell to Alexander McQueen

I was sad to read about the suicide of British fashion designer Alexander McQueen.

But only in that I'm sad to read about any suicide. Because, until his death, he hadn't really made any impact on me at all. If you had asked me who he was I'd have said "Isn't he a fashion designer?" but that's it. I can blag my way through most topics of conversation - but not fashion.

And it's not that I don't like visual things generally - I love paintings and photographs and some sculpture (though I have a sneaking affection for the idea that sculpture is what you walk backwards into by mistake when you're looking at the paintings).

It's true that I cannot - simply can NOT - understand any visual instructions. All those little pictures of how to put a set of shelves together. Not a clue. I'd rather, if they were made in, say, Hungary, that you gave me the instructions in Hungarian. I could learn the language far faster than I could ever interpret the pictures.

So maybe that's it. Maybe that's why anything to do with fashion goes completely over my head. I've been looking at lots of Alexander McQueen's creations and thinking - - well, who could wear those? They look like Art, perhaps - - - but they don't look like clothes, or not the kind of clothes that real people could wear, anyway. Apparently one of the things he was famous for is a scarf with a picture of a skull on it "A scarf bearing the motif became a celebrity must have and was copied around the world" says Wikipedia.

Why? Celebrities presumably think that if they own this scarf they have "arrived" in the world of Celebrityland. Many of the rest of us think that if we own one then a bit of Celebrityness will rub off on us. But I just can't tell, looking at it, what is particularly special about it.

Perhaps it's just envy because all the models wearing the clothes are a size 8 at their fattest.

I knew a fashion designer once who said that a lot of fashion designers are gay men (as, indeed, this man was and Alexander McQueen was) and that this is why they tend to design clothes that look good on straight-up-and-down boyish figures. That may be true - it was just one man's opinion - but perhaps it's just that fabric works better when it doesn't have to bend round too many curves. Or perhaps it's just that - in a society were many people are overweight - we prize thinness, just as in societies where many people don't have enought to eat they prize fatness.

I do take on board that McQueen had a big influence on high street fashion too - - but I don't understand high street fashion either. All my adult life I've worn jeans and a T-shirt, mostly. Sometimes the jeans are blue, sometimes black. The T-shirts are in whatever colours I find that I happen to like. If it's hot I wear a long skirt and sometimes that's blue and sometimes it's black. I have somewhat smarter versions of these for working in, when the work needs me to look smarter.

When I have to wear clothes for any kind of dressing-up occasion that isn't work-related, my answer is to panic and, very often, not to go. I simply haven't a clue and, although they may fit me, most high street clothes don't suit me anyway because - guess what - they were designed for size 8 models. And it's really not that I'm huge - I'm a size 18, heading down to 16 (I think it must be all the swimming). But I'd never be smaller than that - I am descended from Russian peasants and my back's too broad. If you want something carrying, I'm your woman.

So perhaps it's just sour grapes because I have never been interested in fashion - - and the world of fashion has never been interested in me. If you think you can explain it to me, do please try.

Friday, February 12, 2010

An Island Far Away

Here's a photo that isn't quite what it seems.

No, I know it's not perhaps the most exciting photo in the world. A snow-covered field with trees in the distance, perhaps?

But it couldn't possibly have been taken in Britain. Because the snow-covered expanse in the foreground is actually frozen sea, with a tree-covered island in the distance.

Stephen took it in Helsinki this week. Until he went there, he had never seen frozen sea and that's why he took the photo.

I have never seen frozen sea and I would really like to see it - - - though perhaps not quite as much as I would like to see a palm-fringed tropical beach.

This photo, below, is exactly how I thought Finland would look - - all forests and deep snow, and so it proves.

Of course, they are used to it and they're good at getting rid of it where necessary. But in this country, we're neither used to it nor good at dealing with it when it arrives.

This winter there have been lots of complaints that councils just weren't ready to cope with snow. Not enough snowploughs, or salt.

Yes, we say this now, because we've just had the worst lot of snow for many years. But I'd guess that, by July, any councillor who suggests buying a few snowploughs will be shouted down.

We've got short memories. By the summer we'll all be moaning that it's too hot. Or too wet. Or something. We British love complaining about the weather.

But we'll have forgotten about the snow, and if we get any next winter, we'll all be surprised all over again.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

In Distant Lands

I was working with some Malaysian students today and, to get them talking to each other in English, I asked them what they thought was the best thing about Britain, what was the worst thing about Britain, and what was the thing about Britain that had surprised them the most.

The general answer, to all three questions, seemed to be "The weather".

Many of the students loved the fact that we have seasons here in Britain. "It's always hot and humid in our country," said one in tones of disappointment.

I think she could see the misty-eyed longing in my expression when she said the word "hot" and she moved swiftly on to say how much she'd enjoyed ski-ing in Scotland over the Christmas holiday, even though she couldn't understand a word that anyone said as the English-language teaching back home had not prepared them for Scottish accents.

"I'd never seen snow before," said one, "and I sent a video of myself making a snowman to my family, and they loved it. "

It was fascinating to see the British weather through their eyes. You just never know what it's going to do the next day! How exciting!

They asked me what it was that I disliked most about Britain.

"Well, one of the things is the traffic." I said.

They looked bewildered. "What traffic?"

They couldn't believe that it bothered me. Leeds, apparently, is a city of quiet country lanes with just the occasional motor car, compared with Kuala Lumpur.

I love hearing about life in other parts of the world.

In contrast, I heard an interesting small news item on the radio today. Apparently in the Philippines there has been a spate of what are becoming known as My Way shootings.

There are a lot of guns about in the Philippines, apparently, and a lot of people who sing very badly who enjoy karaoke.

For some reason a badly-sung My Way is particularly annoying to audience members with guns. And, really, the lyrics do just invites some kind of a response, don't they? And that's what has been happening.

"And now, the end is here
And so I face the final curt - - " - - BANG!

It was probably as well that I didn't have a gun handy when our next-door neighbours were all singing it very loudly in the garden at three in the morning once.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Shark in the Water

In the early mornings the pool is divided into three wide lanes.

The swimmers have - with no apparent discussion - decided that it's a kind of wet version of a motorway.

In the left-hand lane you get the slow swimmers, in a kind of Citroen 2C way. In the middle lane you get the slightly faster swimmers - the Renault Clios and similar - and in the outside lane you get the Porsches, zipping along at top speed.

In each lane, though, you are supposed to swim clockwise to stop you bashing into the other swimmers.

I am - - modest cough - - too fast for the slow lane. Granted, that's probably because the average age of those in it is about ninety-six, with a couple of younger women whose main aim in swimming seems to be to protect their hairstyles.

I am most certainly too slow for the fast lane. There you will find the proper swimmers, like my friends Jo and Deb, whose excellent strokes mean that they can zip through the water very fast with very little disturbance of the water's surface.

No, my natural home is the middle lane and there I would be very happy, swimming up and down counting the lengths, bothering nobody and being bothered by nobody.

Except that in the middle lane there is the Shark.

He's a huge, shaven-headed man of about fortysomething. He swims faster than everyone else in the middle lane, and therefore he thinks the diagram about swimming clockwise doesn't apply to him. He goes straight up and down the middle and woe betide you if you happen to be approaching the end at the same time as he is - - - he just swims straight across you.

He looks very scary and never makes eye contact. When he nearly crashes into you - as happened with me last week - and you have to make a sudden movement to get out of his way, and you nearly get cramp in your leg, and don't go swimming the next day because of it - - does he apologise? No he does not, just splashes off into the distance at top speed. His every stroke says GET OUT OF MY WAY FOR I AM MORE IMPORTANT THAN YOU!

I expect he has LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles, rather badly. Outside the pool I am certain he has a grubby white van with a couple of Rottweillers in it. At home he has a rather subdued and usually drunk girlfriend and three or four children. I expect he has six or seven older children from previous relationships whose career options include a choice between Housebreaking and Stealing Cars, probably with a bit of Grievous Bodily Harm thrown in.

Do I know all this for certain? No, of course not. But I surmise it from his general anti-social behaviour and I bet I'm right.

He may be fast, but his swimming is actually terrible. His left leg comes out of the water at the end of the kick of breast stroke, sending a huge arc of water across the entire pool. He creates such a wash as he ploughs up and down that a couple of times I've had a coughing fit when it's broken over me.

After he's finished swimming, he stands still for about twenty minutes and jogs on the spot, making sure he's in a place that will demonstrate to all just how very, very fit he is.

I am always on the edge of complaining about him but I haven't yet, partly because I think he might follow me home and petrol-bomb my house.

I am sure that the other regular morning swimmers find him as annoying as I do, but we have none of us worked out what to do about him.

I think that the only solution might be to wait until he's jogging on the spot, and then all leap at him and hold him under the water until the schools arrive at about half past nine. That sounds like a plan.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Is a Third Good Enough to Teach?

On my way to work with some medical students today, I heard a discussion on the radio about teaching. Apparently David Cameron, leader of the Conservative party, has said that he doesn't think anyone with a degree of lower than a 2:2 should be allowed to be a teacher in a school.

For anyone who doesn't know how British degrees work - - the top one is a first, then a 2:1, then a 2:2, then a third, then a pass degree and then a fail.

So the Conservatives think that it will raise both the standard and the status of teachers if they have to have higher than a third before they're let loose on the nation's little darlings.

Well, as always with sweeping political statements, it's a far too simplified view of things.

Sometimes, and on some courses, getting a third means that you just weren't good enough to do better, or that you just didn't put the work in.

And sometimes, of course, that might mean that you were too stupid or too lazy to learn all the things that you needed to know in order to get a better grade.

Now then, this could matter if you were - for example - planning to teach French, and really you hadn't managed to learn it terribly well yourself.

On the other hand, not everyone - I would guess not many - of people who get a third get this grade because of laziness or lack of ability. Perhaps you had incredibly difficult personal circumstances at the time, such as ill-health or bereavement. Perhaps you were just on the wrong course for you, and didn't realise this until too late. Perhaps you were one of those people who tend to panic in exams.

So does the grade of your degree affect your possible future ability as a teacher? Well, in some circumstances, it might, yes, depending upon the reasons for your low grade. If you're teaching A-level English Literature, for example, then I think it would most certainly help to have done the broader and more in-depth reading and study required at degree level, and to have done it well.

But I'd argue that in many other circumstances, it wouldn't help at all. What matters, as well as a certain level of knowledge, is a genuine enthusiasm for the subject, and - even more importantly - an enthusiasm for imparting it to others, plus an ability to control the class whilst doing so.

When I taught in schools, most of the work I did in English was at a much more basic level. What I was good at - - I think, and hindsight is a wonderful thing - was getting teenagers who were hovering around just below a useful level of knowledge of English, and dragging them kicking and screaming over the threshold to a point where they could get a useful grade at GCSE which would help to make them employable.

If, along the way, I managed to introduce a few of them to the joys of reading for pleasure, or even for information, I think that was extremely important too.

And then, because I was trying to have a baby and didn't want to commit to a permanent job, I did a lot of supply teaching, often teaching subjects that I knew very little about. But I hated it when supply teachers didn't make any effort with the lesson and just handed out dull worksheets. So I'd be going "I don't know anything about woodwork. Could you tell me everything you know, please, starting with what all the tools are for?" And thus they would revise everything they knew by explaining it to this very ignorant teacher and actually, it would be a jolly good lesson.

In some subjects I think being too good at it can actually make for poor teaching. I have come across maths teachers with such an instinct for, and love of, maths, that they cannot begin to understand how anyone could not love it and instantly understand it after just one explanation. So they don't so much explain it as introduce it - - and after that, they can't help you any further. "But you must understand it, it's easy!" is their cry.

Actually, I've had to work hard not to be like that about spelling. If I see a word once I will always be able to spell it. It's just a trick of my mind. When I first started teaching I simply couldn't understand why people find spelling difficult and I don't think I was always as understanding as I could have been.

I'm all for raising the status of teachers - I think good teachers are absolutely crucial and anyone who thinks it's an easy job with long holidays should try standing in front of a class of thirty teenagers for half an hour and see how that goes. But I think that a blanket ban on anyone with a lower degree than a 2:2 is not the way to do it.

It would lose us many potentially excellent teachers. Granted, we don't want teachers from the - I suspect few - people who haven't worked hard at their degree and who drift into teaching because they can't think of what else to do. But interviews, firstly, and watching people in front of a class, secondly, should weed out those.

In case you think that this is a personal gripe, it's not. I got a B.A. (Hons) in English Literature, grade 2:2 and have always been rather bitter about the fact that I'd been told it was a 2:1 and they put all the grades down at the last moment. I was certainly not clever enough or hard-working enough to get a First and another fact was that I simply wasn't interested enough in the course.

I'm loving the work that I do with medical students these days and actually I am arrogant enough to think - and to say - that I'm a good teacher. But I think that doesn't have much to do with the grade of my degree.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Far Away - - - and Freezing

Snow eh? Well, that's not news, even though it does look chilly.

But this particular snow is in Helsinki, which you no doubt know is in Finland. It's where Stephen is tonight, for work.

Last winter when Stephen went there he was amazed by the frozen sea, which he'd never seen before.

It's a country of only about four million people, and lots of forests with a few wolves and bears and, further north, reindeer. The trains say such things as "Moscow" on the front, which made it all seem very far away.

It also has a very old and extremely difficult language where you make up words as you go along - - - mind you, I taught teenagers who did that in Leeds.

I do think it's great that Stephen took this photo in Helsinki this evening and put it on our computer in Leeds, where I just found it. If you know about how this kind of thing works you won't be surprised by this - - - but I am always surprised and delighted.

I hope he'll bring me back a reindeer, I've always rather liked them.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Busy Sunday

I was planning to go swimming at half-past eight today and again woke up stupidly early. So I used the time before the pool opened to clean out the Giant African Land Snails which are now really rather huge - about five inches long. They were a wedding present to Olli and Gareth from the owners of the delightful Silent World Aquarium in Tenby. In February 2008 they were tiny - - - but they've grown.

There was some strange pleasure in doing this job at seven o'clock on Sunday morning, knowing that I was probably the only person in Leeds - in fact probably in the entire country and very possibly the world - who was cleaning out a tankful of snails at this time. Were the snails grateful for their nice clean tank and their fresh lettuce and bits of damp paper? It was a bit hard to tell but I think I did spot a slight hint of gratitude on their faces.

Then I fed the cat and ate a large bowl of porridge and sent a couple of emails and went off to the pool. My friends Jo and Deb were there too and we all decided that swimming is a bit like meditation - it clears your head of worries as you go up and down the pool counting the lengths.

An hour's swimming, then I drove back home and got things ready for the agency meeting. The actors meet every fourth Sunday, unless they're working, and they come to this meeting from all over the country. Today's was a particularly important one with a lot to discuss, as we'd had to cancel the January meeting because of snow.

Everyone had made a special effort to get to this one if they could. It was great to see so many of them together - nineteen people in our living-room: it's a good job that the Victorians built generally large rooms. One of the actors makes the best chocolate cake in the world and she had brought one along. There isn't much of it left now.

So we began the meeting at one o'clock - - - and were just about finished by half past five. I could see one of the new members gaping in astonishment at the length of the meeting. "A good job this is a short meeting," I said to her cruelly - - luckily she knew I was joking!

It was good-humoured and we got a lot done and I love seeing all the actors coming together and having a good discussion like that.

Finally most of them went home, though two of them stayed for tea - we made spag bol - and THEN I thought - - - d'you know what? It's been a long day so far, but I don't think it's going to get much longer, not for me. I'm going to bed soon, I think. Still, a productive and interesting day! I don't often write this blog like a diary entry but I thought I'd just give you a snapshot of a rather busy Sunday.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

From Housework to Holidays

Until recently, a delightful lady called Val came once a fortnight to do some basic housework for us.

She did three hours of dusting and hoovering, which was not enough to do everything needed by any means, but it was at least a start and meant that at least a basic level of housework got done.

She was full of interesting stories about her two clever daughters - one a scientist in Canada, one a teacher. We've known her for years - my mother helped her younger daughter with her conversational French when she was at school. And Val herself was full of interesting stories: I particularly liked the ghost story about the face at the window when they were on holiday.

It wasn't so much that we employed Val: more that she met us, took pity on us, and decided to come to sort us out. She was forever bringing my mother things that might come in useful - - lampshades, clothes, homemade jam, that kind of thing. We paid her for the work she did, of course, but she wouldn't work for just anybody - she had to feel that she was needed.

But Val was sixty, and not in brilliant health, and this Christmas she retired. I haven't even bothered trying to replace her: she was irreplaceable and anyway now there's just the two of us living here, there shouldn't be THAT much mess, surely?

Of course, it's a fairly big late-Victorian house. Five bedrooms, high ceilings, large rooms. I love all that about it: but it does take quite a bit of cleaning. It would help if my parents had ever thrown anything away whilst they lived here - - or even if they'd taken it with them when they left. So one room is full of junk which I am always, pathetically, trying to sort: but I never get very far with it because I'm always too busy and there's always too much else to do.

We have decorated most of the house since we moved in here when we bought it from my parents in 1999. That's apart from our bedroom, which has decor dating back to when my Grandma - my mother's mother - lived with us. It's a lovely big room with windows on two sides but it really needed decorating, and a new carpet and curtains at the time that she died, and that was in 1991. Oops.

But the rest of the house has gradually had new carpets and new decoration - most of it white, because I like plain white walls that can have pictures on them, and I like the light and sense of space that comes from all the white.

Stephen doesn't have a particular aversion to housework and does a lot of the hoovering: it's his Sunday-morning job. But I do most other things just because I'm in the house more than he is so I see what needs doing.

My aim is to get it all clear and junk-free so everything is easy to dust. This is not easy. The house is full of ancestral clutter dating back to 1959 when we moved in. No item of furniture matches any other item, really. I am always so busy that I just don't have time to do what ought to be done - which is to put every item in the house out on the big back lawn and ban a lot of it from ever coming inside again.

About twice a year I get a skip and put loads of junk in it. It's very satisfying but over a period of ten years here I have realised that the junk doesn't get any less - - and I don't know why this should be. I think that every night when I am sleeping a Junk Fairy flies down the chimney and leaves a 1974 copy of Women's Own and some 1970s platform shoes. Ahh, I think, I can't throw those away, they're interesting - - - - but I can't find anywhere to put them, either.

What I need is a Houswork Week. A complete blitz - - - actually, thinking about what there is to do, it would probably need to be a Housework Fortnight. But I'm always too busy for any such thing.

Of course, I did have two weeks off last summer when we went to Italy. And I could, of course, have spent all that time getting the house in order instead.

But I didn't. I preferred to spend it looking at views like this one, which is from the top of the cable car in San Marino, in the direction of the sea:

Life is short: and I want to spend more of it looking at the world, not at the dust. The perfectly clean and tidy house will have to wait.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Girls' Grammar School Sports

In amongst all the swotty stuff - and there was plenty of swotty stuff! - we did rather a lot of Games.

There was tennis in the summer and I liked that. The school, being a girls' grammar school, had leafy lawns and tennis courts. In my first year at secondary school I had some after-school coaching and I enjoyed it. I was never going to be very good at tennis - -I gather that, in general, you have to be able to run and I never could, really - but I was quite good at whacking the ball over the net somewhere where my opponent couldn't get at it. Practising serves on a sunny summer's evening after school - - ah yes, I enjoyed that.

Also in the summer was rounders. Again, it helped if you could run. This running thing tended to be an ongoing theme in PE, which seemed to me most unfair. I could hit the ball and would lope along to first base and there stop. However, it was quite fun, once you were out, lying in the grass and making daisy chains. Or fielding - supposedly - chatting to your friend and seeing how far you could drift away from the action without the teacher noticing.

In the winter there was hockey. My mother loved it - she was once Captain of Leeds University hockey team - but I hated it. Nasty vicious game, and always played in temperatures well below freezing. One year, when they decided to keep British Summertime in the winter, we played it first lesson, in the dark. This suited me fine - the less the teacher saw of me, hiding by the goalposts, the better.

There was also netball. This too was generally played in freezing temperatures. You had to wear your Games Skirt - a short, navy blue pleated affair - and your huge, thick navy blue knickers. I think these were designed as some primitive form of contraceptive device - if all girls and women wore these, there would be no underage sex. Probably no sex at all, in fact, just a lot of men with looks of bewildered horror on their faces. Along with this you wore your Aertex Games Shirt, which was in your house colours (Tudor (red), Stuart, (yellow) Plantagenet (green) and Windsor (blue). I was in Stuart. Yes, I'm afraid I remember just about everything from my childhood, no matter how dull.

On the front of your Games Shirt your name had to be embroidered in chain stitch, so that the PE teachers knew which ones to blame. Over it you had to wear a kind of tabard with initials on it which purported to show which position you were playing in - - of course, mine was generally Left Behind. Though I didn't mind netball too much. There seemed to be rather a lot of standing about in the cold but it was quite fun trying to get the ball into the net.

Once a week, there was swimming. The school had its own - rather elderly - pool. I loved it. Of course, swimming was the only sport I was any good at, since running didn't seem to be a major issue here. I was never particularly fast, but I was a confident swimmer so was allowed to do my own thing in the Deep End whilst the PE teacher yelled at the poor non-swimmers in the Shallow End. I did my lifesaving qualifications and learned how to rescue a brick from the bottom of the pool whilst wearing pyjamas. I still hope that this skill may prove useful one day.

Sometimes, there was athletics on the field. I draw a veil over this. Every little bit of it involved running and some of it involved jumping too and I couldn't do that either. Hurdles are cruel and unnatural punishment and I don't like watching them to this day.

And then, in our first year, there was Greek Dance. Our mothers had been provided with a pattern to make a tunic for this, in shiny Royal Blue material: for in those distant days, all mothers could sew. Plus we had the obligatory matching knickers which of course went over the thick navy blue ones to make absolutely sure that any lustful males who might happen to catch a glimpse of us would remain soundly untempted.

It was possibly the most embarrassing thing I've ever had to do. I have no idea what steps we did or what music we danced to - - - I just spent the whole lesson trying to zone out of it whilst the teacher yelled - as she often did - "A little one, a BIG one, a little one, a BIG one - - " No, I've no idea what she was going on about and very much doubt that I did even then. I tried to dance with my eyes closed so that I couldn't see us.

So - - have any of these become a lasting part of my life? I think you know the answer - the swimming. But I loved that well before I went to secondary school. I remember the rest, though - some good memories, some not so good. Except for the Greek Dance. I have tried to forget it completely - - - and, mercifully, have nearly succeeded.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Showbiz and Showreels

A lot of the work that we do in the agency consists of submitting actors for jobs. Sometimes casting directors contact us looking for actors for a certain project. We also pay for several casting breakdown services which are emailed into the office several times a week.

Occasionally casting directors will ask if the actor has a showreel.

Showreels are generally comprised of several clips from television or other screen work, which show the actor in different roles. Sometimes they can be really useful: sometimes not. Really they're only useful for getting the actor more of the same kind of roles that they've had already.

So, for example, I want to submit an actor for a tragic role in something - - - and their showreel is all comedy. I know that they would be excellent in the tragic role - but it's hard, from the showreel, to "sell" the idea to a casting director.

In the Olden Days of about fifteen years ago, it was very tricky for actors to make showreels, and expensive too. What they tended to have was a bulky VHS tape of some television show that they had been in, and they only ever had one copy which of course was very precious to them.

Here's my True Confession.

Once upon a time, in about 1995, an actress applied to the agency and gave us her showreel - which was an episode of a television soap - to look at. Her application was, quite frankly, not terribly good and we were really only watching the clip so we could tell her we'd seen it and unfortunately - - - etc. Of course, there was always the slim chance that it might be brilliant.

I was always very good at looking after such showreels and sending them back to actors in padded Jiffy bags, because I knew how important they were to the actors involved. This particular actress, in fact, had said in her accompanying letter that the tape was particularly precious to her because it was her big television break and her only copy and she had left it set at the beginning of her one scene - - - only one scene, but she thought it showed her off really well - -

An actor who was in the agency at the time was staying with us that night. I'll call him Paul - - because, in fact, that was his name and I'm not taking all the blame for this.

So he put the video in the huge clunky video recorder that we had then, whilst I was in the other room.

"I've set it to play," he said, "but it doesn't seem to be what she said it is."

So I finished making the coffee and slowly wandered into the living-room to have a look.

He had somehow managed to set it to record and by the time we had thought about it and reached this terrifying conclusion, it had recorded over her entire scene, from the beginning to the end.

We just stared at each other in horror. And then - even worse - we started to laugh, because it was so awful. And then we couldn't stop laughing. We hated ourselves - - but we were hysterical.

Eventually I wrote her a very carefully-worded grovelling apology and hoped I'd never see or hear from her again. And I didn't - - - until a few years later, when she was in a class I was running about actors' agencies. It was very, very hard to look her in the eye.

Anyway, here is one of our actor's showreels, so you can see what they look like these days. There are a few good actors' showreels in the agency, I'm pleased to say, (including one of someone who reads this blog!) but I thought I'd better not use hers - - so here's a different one.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

After the Big Freeze

It's been snowing again today, gently, and I think most people are looking at it and thinking "Oh come ON now, enough already! We've had the snow and we don't need an encore."

I was watching a programme tonight about what has become known as The Big Freeze: I had recorded it but it was first broadcast on January 14, right in the middle of all the snow.

It was all about whether in future we will think it's worth spending billions of pounds on extra snowploughs and other snow-clearing equipment. My guess is that we won't. By April we will have forgotten all about it and will be dealing with next winter by the fingers-crossed method which has worked pretty well for the past twenty years or so.

So what is the lasting damage? Lots of holes in the road, that's what, some of them several inches deep. They will cost a lot to mend and if Leeds City Council has mended them all by next winter I will be astonished.

I think there has also been a huge decrease in the country's wildlife, and we perhaps won't know the full effect of that for some months to come.

But I'm noticing it in our garden. I feed the birds all year round, and every day in the frozen weather I put out water - sometimes several times a day.

One instant change was that all the birds suddenly looked like little round balls, as they fluffed up their feathers against the cold and became almost spherical - I haven't seen that for years.

During the time of the snow itself, I noticed several kinds of birds passing through - flocks of long-tailed tits, and blackcaps (which look like sparrows with - well - black caps if they're male, and ginger caps if they're female). Those aren't very common round here. There were plenty of bluetits, great tits and the smaller coal tits. Of the larger birds, there were mistle thrushes, which visit only occasionally.

And there were the usual woodpigeons, collared doves, blackbirds, magpies and jays, and a pair of robins which are still very much around.

But usually, in our garden, there are two separate flocks of sparrows. I've been looking after them and feeding them for years. I've even learned to make the call that they make to each other when they notice me putting food out and whenever I made the call - a series of little clicks is my best description - they would echo it and flit towards the bird table.

Since about the third day of heavy snow, I haven't seen any of them at all.

Now it's possible they've gone somewhere else - but I can't think why they would, when they always live here and there was always plenty of food for them and cover in the foliage in our garden.

So I think that, sadly, they probably haven't survived the cold. Why the other small birds - such as bluetits - should survive and not the sparrows, I'm don't know.

I hope the sparrows will come back, but I fear that they won't. And I think that my little flocks of sparrows are probably the tip of a very large iceberg of lost British wildlife.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Crispian, Cramp and the DVT

There are always a few people who think that, just because they swim faster than everyone else, they don't need to look where they're going.

One huge, burly bloke ploughs right down the middle of the lane every morning, instead of swimming in a loop as he should do. This morning he nearly crashed right into me, simply because he thought it was fine to do backstroke at top speed, veering about all over the place.

I managed to dodge him by doing a swift manoeuvre out of the way - - - and then realised that this strange, fast movement was giving me cramp in my bad leg.

My right leg is prone to getting cramp because the circulation's a bit rubbish. I had a deep-vein thrombosis in it, in 1984. My first baby had been born prematurely and died, and then I'd been very ill, and on the day that they were going to let me out of hospital I got a pain in my leg. They did a test to see if there was a blood clot (injecting dye into the top of my foot ewwwwwwww) but it was inconclusive.

I went home and my leg swelled up like a balloon, and turned white, the classic sign of a deep-vein thrombosis. A young and inexperienced GP turned up and didn't have a clue what it was and he had the inconclusive test result in his hand, and never thought to think "The test result must be wrong".

I had a swollen leg, agonising pain, a recent pregnancy (which can make people prone to DVT) and a family history of DVT - my father had had one. So other than writing THIS LEG HAS A THROMBOSIS IN IT in indelible ink on my leg, I don't know what more I could have done to demonstrate the classic symptoms, and I don't know why he couldn't diagnose it - - but he didn't.

Probably because he was an idiot, or because he wasn't paying attention on the day they did DVTs at medical school.

(His name was Dr Lloyd. He emigrated to Australia. I hope it was because of me. Sorry, Australia).

So for six weeks I couldn't walk much at all because of the agonising pain, which was like the worst toothache in the world, but in my leg. And finally a bit of the blood clot broke away and settled nicely in my lung, which nearly killed me but luckily (for me at least) didn't. And because I now couldn't BREATHE they took it a bit more seriously and a doctors came who wasn't Dr Lloyd and panicked a lot and finally got me into hospital.

But by then the DVT had done a lot of damage and my leg's never been the same since.

For years it hurt all the time - - actually I think it still hurts quite a bit, but I've kind of learned to screen it out so I don't notice it unless I think about it.

But it's prone to getting cramp, and when it does it's back to the same pain I had when I had the DVT, and it makes me panic a bit because the blood supply's not very good so it can't uncramp itself for ages and I have to hop around and scream AAAARGH AAAAARGH AAAAAAAAARGH and I feel a right fool.

This morning, however, I got to it in time - - stood up, stretched my leg out and it uncramped itself. But when it does this it takes a day or so to recover, so I'll be giving the swimming a miss tomorrow morning I think, which is a pity.

So, what's the point of this jolly little anecdote other than for me to have a good whinge about it?

Well, there were several knock-on effects from this idiot doctor. Firstly, of course, my near-death experience and the permanent severe damage to my leg. Secondly, I should like people who plough up and down swimming pools without looking and consider that they have a God-given right to do so, to be warned twice and then banned from the pool forever!

And finally, there is how I feel when I encounter medical students like Crispian. (That wasn't his name, but it was that kind of name).

Crispial turned up late to class last week, looking - and smelling - as though he'd just got out of bed. Had he brought a pen? No. Or a piece of paper, perchance? No. Because - - and I quote - - "I didn't think I'd have to write anything down. I thought this session would just be a ten-minute chat or something."

WHY ON EARTH WOULD YOU THINK THAT, MORON? resounded through my head.

I wasn't running the class so I couldn't say anything, though I sent in some strongly-worded written feedback afterwards.

I don't want you to think that, these days, this kind of thing is common. Most of the medical students I meet are committed, intelligent, hard-working, caring.

But some aren't. To me, every medical student who isn't paying attention is another Dr Lloyd in the making. And up with this I will not put.