Monday, May 31, 2010

The 1980s - The Horror Returns

There were only a few things that I liked about the Eighties, and this wasn't one of them. I never owned one, I never wore one and I'm not starting now.

I have often seen mentions of them in newspaper columns and magazine articles by women whose glowing youth was traumatised by the blasted things. How if you were short in length, they were always too long. How if you had a long back, and hence correspondingly long front, they would inflict painful injuries to your Bits Underneath.

And everyone was in agreement that the poppers would unpop at the most inopportune moments, risking either a very draughty undercarriage or, if wearing a short skirt, the display of one's femininity in graphic detail to anyone who showed even the minimum of interest.

Yes, a totally ridiculous garment, long consigned to the Dustbin of Fashion History, along with those white eighteenth-century wigs and putting lead all over your face to whiten your skin and bustles and other such deeply stupid items.

Until yesterday, when I saw them in Sainsbury's.

So whose bright idea was that, to bring back the Body, as they were known? Some male fashion designer, I expect. Ladies, please, don't go there. Don't buy them. They'll have us in crinolines next.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Eurovision Song Contest

Last year we wheeled in Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber to see if that would help. It didn't.

This year we tried a song written by Stock and Waterman, ie two-thirds of the hit-making machine Stock, Aitken and Waterman but judging by the resulting song I decided that it was, perhaps, Mr Aitken who made all the hits.

I put it on this blog when I first heard it and I wasn't exactly championing its cause then - it seemed to me to be badly-written Europop and actually I didn't think our poor singer Josh did too well with the last note this evening either - - mind you, it was a blessing in that it was the last note.

I did like the "flash mob" dancing in the middle of the contest tonight(why was London so rubbish at it compared with everywhere else?). And someone from the audience got onto the stage during Spain's rather strange offering, which meant that they got to thrill us with it all over again.

But the voting was totally predictable, as usual - - all the middle-of-Europe countries voted for anyone they want to be friends with. And nobody cares about the Royaume-Uni, or United Kingom, which is the Euroname for Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Let's face it, nobody likes us and we're a Victorian irrelevance.

Mind you, at least we didn't get booed, like Russia did every time they got a few points.

The presenters from the different countries who give the votes do tend to seize their one minute of international fame and say things like "As a singer myself, I want to say that they all did a great job." WE DON'T CARE! JUST GIVE THE VOTES!

In the end Germany won, with a bouncy song sung by a pretty young girl called Lena. I quite liked it and I quite liked Lena as a singer even though every word was pronounced in a totally different and entirely random manner. She won a contest to sing it, apparently, and it's already well-known in Europe.

But then she was interviewed in the middle of all the votes coming in and was very, very annoying indeed. Though perhaps she was a bit tipsy. She did seemed very surprised that she had to sing again at the end, though I'm sure it might have been mentioned once or twice in rehearsals that this is what would happen if you won.

Anyway, here she is.

The song is called "Satellite" which is exactly what Britain is as far as this contest's concerned - - we're kind of circling round the edge of it and our glory days of Sandie Shaw and Puppet on a String are well and truly over.

Did I mention our position on the board? Yes, bottom. Belarus with their exciting opening-butterfly frocks kept us off the bottom spot for a long time but finally they staggered above us near the end.

The nations have spoken to the United Kingdom and their message is this.

"In the Eurovision Song Contest, Eurubbish."

Still, there's always next year. I expect we'll do much better then. Hah.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Picking Bunting

Once upon a time, Amy was my mother's best friend at school, and she obligingly married my mother's favourite cousin. More than seventy years later, she is still my mother's best friend, and Amy, who is totally delightful, has come to stay for a while, from her home in Barrow-in-Furness.

Today she was telling me about what happened when her own mother was three.

Amy is eighty-six, like my mother, so this was a while ago. In fact it was in the very early years of the last century, at the time of the second Boer War in South Africa.

Amy's mother was, perhaps, unimpressed when her new baby brother or sister - Amy doesn't know which it was - was born. Or perhaps Amy's mother, whose name was May, was trying to help.

Anyway, New Baby started to cry and May decided to solve the problem by putting a clothes peg in New Baby's mouth.

Although the baby was quickly discovered and suffered no lasting harm, young May was branded Trouble and it was decided that she should be sent to school.

They wore blue serge dresses and white pinafores as uniform and it cost a penny a day to send them there. But May was too young to learn to read and write and anyway she was not there for her own benefit: she had really only been there to keep her away from her mother and the new baby. So what she - and her fellow criminally-minded three-year-olds - did, was picking bunting.

Bunting these days is usually taken to mean rows of little flags displayed to celebrate some occasion or other. But - and I didn't know this until Amy told me - it is actually a kind of cloth.

It came in bright red squares, and the "picking" bit meant "to unravel". Rather like Victorian prisoners or workhouse inmates had to work picking oakum, which was old rope.

So the little three-year-olds sat in a row, unravelling the red cloth, and the thing that May remembered, and conveyed vividly to Amy, was that the bright red fibres contrasted strongly with the dark blue uniforms.

The red fibres, apparently, were used for packing munitions for the Boer War - and, thereafter, once they got to South Africa, used for packing the soldiers' wounds.

Things have changed a bit in a hundred and ten years and here in Britain we don't think it's a good idea for three-year-olds to do that kind of thing, thank goodness. And, in fact, Amy's mother grew up to be a cold and demanding woman who treated Amy in rather the same way that she had been treated.

I searched for "picking bunting" on the internet and it's not there, except in the context of "choosing flags". It's very nearly a lost bit of history, existing only in the memories of lovely old ladies like Amy. There'll only be a tiny number of people who know it ever happened. I like being one of them, and I hope that you do too.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Groundhog Day With Students

This morning I rose at ten to five (TEN TO FIVE, I TELL YOU!) to travel to a Far City, where some first-year student doctors were having their examination, or OSCE - Objective Structured Clinical Examination.

I was being a Simulated Patient, playing someone who had recently had an operation (and working from a detailed brief with lots of information about it). Because they were first years with very little medical knowledge, their task was to discuss the operation and my feelings about it with me.

This isn't easy: there are many different things that they learn to do in Communication Skills, of which the most basic is introducing themselves properly, checking my name and finding out what I'd like to be called - Mrs Jenkins or Helen, for example. They have to explain that the conversation will be confidential - - and what that actually means: in the case of a student doctor it might mean that someone else might need to be told, such as the doctor or nurse involved with the patient.

Then they had to talk to the patient sensitively and with empathy, and build up a rapport, and find out as much as possible.

To do all this, they had six minutes each in total.

This may not seem very long, but actually if you have good communication skills you can get a long way in six minutes.

In the later years of their course the OSCE stations are longer - - but usually only eight minutes in total, which, if you think about it, is about the length of a consultation with a GP.

As a matter of fact, almost all of today's students had been taught well, and had learned well. There were a few sentences that were a bit clunkily worded ("How would you like me to address you?") but far more good than bad wording, and many of the students were excellent.

And there were a lot of them. OSCEs are always like that, for the Simulated Patient.

We had to arrive at eight because there are so many students that there are several Simulated Patients playing the same role, and hence we need to standardise all the details of how we play it, so it's fair. Exactly how much do we drink? When exactly did we give up smoking?

Starting at nine o'clock, there were sixteen students one after the other, then a ten-minute coffee break, then another sixteen students, then lunch, then thirteen students, then tea, and then another thirteen students, finishing at about ten past five.

So today I have discussed my (fictitious) operation with fifty-eight students. It takes a lot of concentration to keep it fresh, so that you give every student the same opportunity. My secret is caffeine: Red Bull in the afternoons! I don't drink it at any other time but for OSCEs it's brilliant.

It's been a long day and now I'm home I'll be going to bed soon, even though it's only half-past eight. But it's interesting, rewarding work and I love it.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Story of the Fish

I can't remember accurately how long ago it was. Five years? Probably more like ten, or even more. Thinking about it, it's probably more than twenty.

The Communist and I often went walking in those days. After I was so ill and had a blood clot in my leg, we all thought that the best way to help it to get at least a bit better was to walk.

So we walked - often more than once a day. The Communist had recently retired and enjoyed walking. There had been friends I'd gone walking with previously - but now I couldn't keep up and I felt a bit embarrassed about it.

We walked in the parks and we walked in the countryside round about. We never went more than a couple of miles, but we enjoyed it.

One hot, still summer's evening we were walking in Roundhay Park which is not far from where we live. There are two lakes in Roundhay Park - Waterloo Lake (known as "the big lake") and the Small Lake (known as - er - - "the little lake").

Suddenly something strange happened to the water. It started rising up, in smooth curves, all over the lake. We realised that the curves were the backs of big fish. Very big fish, in fact - at least a couple of feet long.

Why all their backs were rising above the water at once, I just didn't know, and still don't. There were lots of flies about - but the fish weren't jumping up to catch the flies. They were simply swimming very close to the surface of the water.

I was surprised that there were so very many fish in the lake, and that they were so huge. I wouldn't have thought that a lake of that size - it takes about fifteen minutes to stroll round it - could support so many fish. I never did find out what they were, or why they were coming out of the water like that. To see them all, suddenly rising up like in this way, was, to me, slightly spooky.

I've walked round that lake very many times since, of course, but I've never seen anything like it ever again. And I've never looked at the lake since without imagining all those big fish, slowly swimming around beneath the surface.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

In Lilac Time

It's been a beautiful weekend here, weather-wise. After the really hard winter, all the plants seem to have made even more of an effort than usual and suddenly the whole garden is full of flowers.

The lilac bushes in the garden have been here since we (that's the Communist, my mother, my grandmother and me) moved in in 1959. Yes, I was very young indeed, thank you for mentioning it.

So the bushes are huge now, and the scent wafts in through our bedroom window, and it's delightful.

The yellow daffodils are gone and the garden is full of blues and purples: glorious, strong colours:

and this:

and here's the lilac itself. It starts off - well, lilac in colour, and then when the flowers are fully open it's a bluey-pink. Or maybe a pinky-blue.

This is my favourite time of year: around the end of May and the beginning of June, with lovely sunshine and the rest of the summer to come. Wonderful!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Patience is a Virtue

Whenever I was a little child, and was being impatient about something - and I suspect I often was, if how I feel now is anything to go by - my grandmother - my Mum's mother - would say "Patience is a virtue".

It was a proverb coined, no doubt, by some old Victorian who'd been sent up chimneys as a child or made to sew a sampler, which to my mind was nearly as cruel.

There are lots of these samplers still about. I've always liked looking at them, because they're little pieces of social history. Little girls, who should have been catching tadpoles and running about outside, were made to practise their embroidery skills by sewing letters of the alphabet, Biblical quotations, and other details such as their name and the date they completed this torture. "Florence Jane Bentham, age ten, 14th May, 1858".

So I reckon that the likeliest source of this "Patience is a virtue" line was a coded message from some child who would have far preferred to embroider "I am, quite frankly, bored out of my skull. Death from tuberculosis, typhoid or other such popular nineteenth-century diseases? Bring it on!"

Anyway, all Grandma's muttering of this line to me in my childhood did not work at all. In some circumstances, no doubt, I'm sure that I can be very patient. I'm just at a bit of a loss to remember what those particular circumstances are.

Hanging about waiting for things to happen is not, I tell you now, one of the things I find easy.

Today I had promised to take my friend Connie (90) and my mother (86) to the garden centre for lunch. It's a lovely sunny day, and I didn't have to be anywhere else, so it seemed the ideal time to do it.

It's not really them, it's me. I look at a menu - I read it through very quickly, I'm a fast reader - and know what I want to eat within about twelve seconds. Luckily Stephen - who had come with us out of kindness - is the same.

So Stephen and I glance at the menu and he says "Cheese and onion toastie" and I say "Cheese omelette". And then Mum and Connie begin to think about what they might eat, and what every single item on the menu might consist of, and whether it might be too big, or too hot, or too spicy, and then they decide. Eventually. And then they ask what Stephen and I are having, and they consider whether those things might be nicer than any of the things previously selected, and then they turn their attention to the drinks.

Finally we order and some time later the food arrives and they marvel at the huge size of the portions and then they start to eat them.

Whilst they are eating, new universes are born. New life forms are created, evolve into other things, and die out. Rocks are made, and eroded into grains of sand.

Finally, they finish and they set off to look around the garden centre, and as I mentioned to my friend earlier on, this is like herding tortoises, only MORE DIFFICULT.

I love both these old ladies. Connie has, as she herself would say, "all her chairs at home". Although she's ninety, she's amazingly well and her mind is sharp as a tack. My mother is physically very fit though getting rather forgetful. But she still has insight.

"Thank you for your patience with us," she said when we got home.

That's the trouble. Although I may have given every illusion of being patient, of slowing down, of enjoying the sunny afternoon at the garden centre, inside I was screaming to speed up, and to get out of there.

I'm not sure whether patience counts as a virtue if you behave as if you're being patient but don't feel it. I think the virtue would be if I thought "Right, Mum and Connie, the next two hours are entirely yours, because in five years you might not be here," and just could slow right down. But I can't, so I ended up feeling really sad about it all, even though they had certainly enjoyed it. It isn't them, it's me. I'm living at too fast a pace, and I'm sorely lacking in patience.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Qualities I Like

I was working with two lovely assessors - both doctors of course - over in Hull today, on an exam for student doctors.

They worked very hard to make the students' assessment totally fair, but in between they were relaxed and friendly and hence the day was very enjoyable.

In the breaks, they made me laugh quite a bit and I made them laugh quite a bit too.

It made me think about people I like, and what qualities they have.

I like people who have enthusiasm and enjoyment - even if the thing that they love is not something that I have a passion for. I just like enthusiasts!

I like people who are skilled in things: and they don't have to be things that I'm skilled in (Who said "just as well?"!) In fact I enjoy admiring and trying to understand other people's skills.

I like people who care about things, and who care about other people, and who think about things.

I like people who make me laugh, of course - - - (and I like it when I can make other people laugh too).

And thinking about my close friends - - well, I think they all have all these qualities, and - of course - more too. But these, to me, are key.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Stranger on the Shore - - - - and Me

After learning to play the recorder rather well, I graduated to learning to play the clarinet extremely badly.

Years later I worked out that one of the reasons for this was probably that we had entirely the wrong reeds for it - the reed is a thin piece of wood that fits in the mouthpiece. Or in our case, a thick piece of wood which meant we had to blow far too hard, and that made any note likely to turn into a shrill squeak at any time at all. It made for interesting concerts.

I played with the Intermediate Concert Band and then I played with Leeds Junior Orchestra. They were quite good - my friend Jo was one of the first violins and she went on to play in the Halle Orchestra.

The clarinet section was a bit rubbish though, especially the bit of it that involved me. I was one of the Second Clarinets, playing lots of low notes and hoping they wouldn't squeak.

We practised every Saturday morning at Leeds College of Music, next to what is now the Museum.

I went there every Saturday morning for several years and I have two strong memories.

One is that there was a girl with a false leg, which was bright pink and looked frankly ridiculous. We all stared at it constantly whilst trying never to mention it.

The other one is that someone once propped their cello against the inside of the door. I watched with interest as someone else opened the door and walked in, knocking the cello over and then putting their foot firmly through it, thus making a really quite interesting and very expensive noise.

On one occasion when we were giving a concert in the massive Leeds Town Hall, I looked to the side of me and there was a First Clarinet-Shaped Gap. I looked to the other side of me and there weren't any other Second Clarinets either.

This, I knew, was going to be a problem. In the middle of the piece we were playing, which I am pretty sure was Vltava by Smetana (yes, it's seared into my memory for ever) there was a couple of bars' clarinet solo, where the clarinet's warm, woody tones would soar effortlessly above the rest of the orchestra.

Of course, it was the job of the First Clarinets to do this, whilst we Second Clarinets were harmonising harmlessly an octave or so below.

But there weren't any First Clarinets. They all had flu, or the measles, or simply Fear, and I didn't blame them.

But without that little solo there would be a couple of bars of not very much at all. So I knew it was down to me. I spent the whole flaming piece trembling as the moment approached.

Reader, I played it. And it didn't sound too bad. And I knew at that moment that I'd only been doing all this orchestra stuff because I liked being with my friend Jo, and because I think my parents rather liked having a - supposedly - musical daughter. (I always scored very highly on tests of musical ability, but sadly consistently failed to translate this into any aptitude for playing instruments.)

So I left the orchestra, and I reclaimed my Saturday mornings, and did proper teenage things with them such as lying in bed. And forty years later, I'm still friends with Jo, and we swim together every week.

She teaches the violin. I don't teach the clarinet.

Take it away, Mr Bilk - - -

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Bluebells and OSCEs

The May flowers are out: there's blossom on the trees: the sun is shining: so what does this mean?

It meant, this morning, as at about this time in every year recently, I've been walking through the bluebell woods on the way to Chapel Allerton Hospital for the University of Leeds Medical School 5th Year OSCE.

OSCE (which is always pronounced as a word, Oskey) is Objective Structured Clinical Examination. The Wikipedia entry which I've linked to, above, gives a good explanation of it, but a brief explanation is that each student goes round a number of "stations" and in each they are given a task to do - taking blood pressure, interviewing a patient with a particular problem - that kind of thing. Some of the patients are real ones - others are simulated patients, and that's what I am.

A simulated patient is somebody playing the role of a patient with a particular condition or problem. As there are so many student doctors, most universities run identical OSCEs at the same time on different sites, so there'll be several simulated patients all trained and standardised in the same role, working in different places.

Doctors train for five years, so this exam is their final exam before they qualify. Unlike with other degrees where there are different grades, doctors only get Pass or Fail - - someone once told me this is because nobody wants a third-class doctor!

I know that, since I started working as a simulated patient in 1985, I have worked on at least a hundred OSCEs. These few weeks are OSCE season - other year groups apart from the final years have them too - and I'm working on OSCEs in Leeds, Manchester and Hull.

As a simulated patient, working on an OSCE, you see lots of patients, one after the other. Today it was twenty-seven, in three "cycles" of nine patients each, and each had eight minutes. That doesn't sound very long but actually it's amazing how much a good student can do in that time. On other OSCEs though, I have seen far more students than this - my record is seventy-two in one day!

There is an examiner in the room who marks the student, and who has a mark sheet listing what to look out for. The simulated patient usually gives a mark too, assessing empathy and communication skills.

It's crucial, of course, to give each student the same opportunity and hence to keep the way that I play the role the same. Though, of course, how I behave after the beginning will depend on how good the student's communication skills are. It requires a lot of concentration, I know - but I think that giving each student the same chance is one of my strengths - I hope!

So - - what has changed since 1985?

Two things strike me every year. The students are getting better and better, perhaps because there is now a lot more emphasis on talking to patients in their course.

The other thing is that the examiners - many of them consultants - are far more friendly and approachable than they used to be. The three with whom I worked today were lovely: incredibly highly skilled with tremendous responsibility in their work but with none of that "superior" manner that they frequently used to have.

So the improved communication skills are now working their way right to the top! In the early days examiners often used to treat me as a kind of audiovisual aid - they certainly didn't treat me as a person!

OSCE days are long, and tiring, and simulated patients have to work hard. But when the students are good, and you know they're the doctors of the future - well, it's really rewarding work that feels so very worthwhile. I love it.

Monday, May 17, 2010

What Would You Most Like to Be?

Olli told me this story the other day.

He was in Year Three, so aged about seven.

The teacher, Mrs Duncalf, asked the whole class what they'd most like to be.

Everyone except Olli took this to mean "when you grow up". So all the boys said they'd like to be footballers and all the girls said they'd like to be Spice Girls. Yes, I know, gender conditioning and all that.

Then Mrs Duncalf asked Olli.

"I'd like to be a white-crested hornbill," said Olli, thoughtfully.

Olli's teachers always made very positive comments on his reports but I could tell that they were always a bit puzzled.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Dappled Things

Here's the path around Waterloo Lake in Roundhay Park, Leeds, yesterday morning:

I love the dappled effect of sunshine through trees.

So, I believe, does just about everyone else. There's a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins that begins "Glory be to God for dappled things" - you can find it here if you want to.

I'm not quoting it because it's a rather strange poem if you ask me (or even if you don't) and actually I think it goes a bit downhill after the first line. The rhythm's called Sprung Rhythm, I seem to remember from my Eng Lit days.

However, although I'm not religious I'm with Gerard on this - dappled things are delightful, generally, and I'm not sure why. Perhaps, in ancient times, a dappled clearing in the forest was a safe place to be.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Sloooooow Memories

In the Olden Days of the nineteen-sixties, there was eternal sunshine, there was great music, there were fantastic ice-creams and nobody minded about the E-numbers in them, and there was a general feeling of bouncy optimism. And there were tortoises.

Yes, in those far-off days almost every child seemed to have a tortoise as a pet. Like poodles, they were Iconic Sixties Animals.

I had a tortoise and a poodle, and lots of other creatures too, because I wanted to be a vet, and our house and garden were filled with as many animals as I could get away with.

In those days, tortoises were caught in the wild and imported from abroad in crates, piled one on top of the other. It was very cruel and many of them died.

But we didn't know this. We just saw them for sale in the pet shop, and wanted one.

Some people painted initials on their backs, or the numbers of the house, in case they escaped. Some people drilled through their shells, tied a knot through the hole and kept them on a piece of string. I wasn't a fan of either of these practices and I'm still not.

No, our tortoise lived a good life in a specially-built outdoor run with a little wooden house at one end. The Communist was good at creations involving wood and chicken wire.

I would move the run round on the lawn and the tortoise would eat his way through any dandelions. I would also bring him lots of other things to eat and this is why, to this very day, should anybody request it I can do an excellent impersonation of A Tortoise Eating a Strawberry.

Of course, the long, hot summers (for, of course, they were always both long and hot) were devoted to making sure that the tortoise put on enough weight to survive his winter hibernation. Of course, tortoises shouldn't be hibernating in the first place - they should be living in a hot country where they don't need to. But in Britain, that was what we did with them, and what's more Val, John and Pete on the television programme Blue Peter would show you how to do it, every year, and how to get them up again in the Spring.

One year one of my tortoises died during hibernation and my Grandma - my mother's mother, who lived with us - brought it in and waved it under the Communist's nose whilst he was having breakfast.

"Look, it's dead!" she said cheerily.

The Communist didn't appreciate this whilst he was trying to eat his Weetabix and for ever after he would say "and the time that Lottie brought me that dead tortoise for breakfast".

One time the tortoise escaped, I'm not sure how. I mourned its loss and thought I'd never see it again - but it turned up three days later, walking up the path towards the back door.

I'm not generally keen on looking after reptiles. It's hard to tell whether you're doing it properly. But I still like tortoises. In this country now, they are very expensive and people who keep them as pets generally do so indoors, and that's far better for the tortoises.

But when I was revising for exams, trotting off down the garden and hand-feeding the tortoise a slice or two of cucumber made for a lovely peaceful break. Like many other pleasant times, it's one that won't come again.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Death and Taxis

Yesterday morning I drove 60 miles to Wythenshawe along crowded motorways without incident, and then I drove back again without incident. I expect you'll put this down to my highly skilled driving, and your conclusion will, of course, be correct. I know about fourth gear and everything now, and am even trying to learn what is apparently called "anticipation" which is how to spot big lorries before you get stuck behind them, and pedestrians before you run over them.

Having done it successfully yesterday, this morning I drove 60 miles to Wythenshawe without incident and then I drove 59 and a half miles back without incident.

And then, on a road near our house, two taxis made a joint effort to kill me.

It's quite a steep narrow road and there were cars parked at both sides of it. I was driving up the road: a taxi came flying down it at top speed leaving not much room to pass. But there WAS just enough room - except that just as I drew level with a side road, another taxi shot forward out of it at top speed - I couldn't see it because of the parked cars, and I don't suppose the driver could see me, even if he had been looking, which he most certainly wasn't.

Thus for an instant there was a possible Daphne Sandwich in between the bonnet of that taxi and the side of the other one and the parked car next to it.

But somehow, I steered a teeny bit to the right, and First Taxi steered a teeny bit to the left, and First Taxi missed me by about the thickness of the paint on the car, and Second Taxi slammed his brakes on, and the Daphne Sandwich was narrowly avoided.

Which is just as well, because it would have really ruined my day.

There are lots of taxis round here and many of the drivers are great. However, I hate it when taxi drivers speed away before I can do up my seat belt, and my rule is never to give a tip to any driver who does that.

And now I'm going to add another rule, which is that I'm never going to give a tip to anyone who nearly crushes a woman in a Renault Clio.

In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxis, as Benjamin Franklin might have said if he'd been sitting in the passenger seat today.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Long and Winding Road to Wythenshawe

What is it about satnavs eh? (If you're in America you don't call it a satnav but I can't currently remember what you do call it, sorry! I've had a long day.)

I was working in Wythenshawe Hospital this morning, which is about 60 miles away. I've been there a few times, letting the satnav take me, and the way she takes me is this:

On to the M621 in Leeds, which joins onto the M62. Continue along that for a long way whilst it gets higher and I get stuck behind some lorries which can't really do the climb. Past the spot where the motorway splits in two round a farm and past Junction 22 which is the National Fog Store. Even when there's no fog at all in the rest of the country, they keep a bit of fog at Junction 22 just in case it's needed anywhere. Then I pass the sign that says it's the highest motorway in England and then begin the descent down towards Rochdale.

Shortly afterwards the satnav says "continue onto the M60" and immediately after that there is a left fork and a right fork, both labelled M60. So a quick panic followed by remembering that it's the right one that I need.

After a bit more M60 it's on to the A5103 for a bit and then turn off to the left and go straight into a housing estate. Up lots of narrow roads with no signs for the hospital anywhere: over a million speed bumps. Down a road that's blocked at the end and the satnav really doesn't like it when you turn round instead of driving straight into the brick wall.

"Perform a U-turn where possible."

"It's blocked off you stupid idiot!"

"Perform a U-turn where possible."


Finally, down a long and winding country lane and in through the back entrance of the hospital.

What's that all about then, Satnav?

Anyway, today I decided to outwit her by staying on the A5103 for another junction and seeing what happened.

She wasn't pleased.

"Exit left."

"SHAN'T! Because you know NOTHING and you're WRONG!"

I came off at the next junction. There was a sign saying "Wythenshawe Hospital" to the right.

"Turn right".

Ahhhh well that was cheating. I think she was reading the sign.

A straight road, signposted all the way, and several miles nearer than Satnav's Scenic Route.

Did she apologise? Nope. Did she explain her love for housing estates, narrow roads, blocked routes and speed bumps? Nope.

Tomorrow morning I'm going to do it all again, because I'm co-running the same workshop again, with different students (and today's group were fantastic, by the way).

Perhaps tomorrow morning I'll get an apology.

"Yes, Daphne, you were right and I was wrong. Perform a U-turn where possible and go your way."

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Yorkshire Spring

It's been very cold recently and there's been lots of weather, all at once. Today it was sunny sometimes and then there was a little flurry of sleet.

I've been working a lot recently and was delighted to go for a walk in the park with Silverback today. I always like those dark clouds contrasted with sunlight and then he noticed the sun on the tree - - - and it's one of my favourite combinations, somehow, even though you know it's likely that you're about to get rained on.

I love all the Spring greens that you get at this time of year:

Tomorrow I'm working in Wythenshawe, Manchester, sixty miles away - - - and it will be a very early start and then a crowded motorway. Now then, don't get me wrong, I'll love the work when I get there - - - but this afternoon was a little oasis of peace and I really enjoyed it.

Monday, May 10, 2010

A Few Chilly Numbers

The temperature of the swimming pool is usually about thirty-one degrees Centigrade.

Yesterday, however, it was only twenty-eight degrees. We all complained to each other how cold it was and showed off our blue hands and feet and hopped about complaining about cramp.

From time to time we'd have to dodge a piece of floating ice as it drifted past. Occasionally a shout would go up "Polar Bear!" and we'd all have to get out of the pool and run for the changing-rooms.

Okay, perhaps I'm exaggerating a tiny bit. But it was COLD, okay? My mother had to get out after half an hour and that's way before she usually does.

Today it was back to thirty-one degrees and I could happily go back to complaining that it was too hot for proper swimming, it was like swimming through treacle, blah blah.

But these numbers worried me slightly.

When I do the Great North Swim on September 4th, Lake Windermere will be about fifteen degrees. I'd never given this much thought before - I've swum in a lot of very cold sea around the British Isles and never really minded it.

But that was before I knew the actual numbers. Now I know that twenty-eight degrees can feel cold, all I can say is - - - well - - - BRRRRRRRRRRR!

By yesterday I'd swum a total of sixty miles this year. My friend Kate said "Hey, that's the distance from my house to Scotch Corner." So having swum so far up the A1, I've set off to swim back again, and so far I've done one mile. I might have to dodge a few lorries. Think I'll stick to the B roads in future.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Daphne Goes Gambling in Las Vegas

It's not that I disapprove of gambling. It's possible, however, that I'm too much of a cheapskate to enjoy it. Though, I must say, when I was about ten I was a whizz on the Penny Falls in the very old-fashioned amusement arcade in Tenby. It was one of those where you roll a penny down a slot; and if you got the angle and the timing exactly right, then a whole load of pennies would fall off at the end and you'd be perhaps half a crown richer and feel like a millionaire. I absolutely loved it.

At what could perhaps be described as the other end of the gambling scale, I was watching Louis Theroux at the Hilton Casino in Las Vegas.

We followed the gambling fortunes of several people. There was a high-roller (oh yes, I picked up the terminology) who had made his money in mattresses. The Hilton let him stay for free in their best suite whilst lackeys looked after his every need and gave him three thousand dollars' worth of freebies. It was very clear that all this made Mattress Man feel extremely important. The bloke who was in charge of looking after him described him as "a friend" and didn't seem to notice the fact that I was yelling "Yeah, right! Course he's your friend!" at the screen.

I wanted a quiet word with Mattress Man. I wanted to point out that if a casino gives you a free suite - the biggest in North America, apparently - and three thousand dollars' worth of free goodies, then it is because they can see that you are going to lose, in their casino, far more than the cost of the suite and the goodies combined.

In fact, therefore, instead of feeling important, he should have felt like a fool. He lost, and lost, and won a bit, and lost some more, but still felt important, because it made him feel good to stay in that posh suite and have lots of money to lose. He did mention that his wife hated his gambling, and I'm sure he was entirely correct in this assertion.

Then there were two middle-management types. One of them played until he'd lost as much as he'd allowed himself and then stopped. And that, in my book, is fine. If you enjoy the excitement of gambling, and can set a limit of losses as the price of your fun night out - well that's fine and there's nothing wrong with it.

The other one played until he'd lost as much as he'd allowed himself, and then played some more, and lost some more, and then got drunk and said things like "I'm not a quitter," and then played some more, and lost a lot more, and refused to stop playing, and got a bit more drunk, and lost some more.

Louis Theroux kept asking the staff what they'd do if someone was losing a lot more than they thought he or she could afford to lose. The staff weren't quite sure what to say.

Finally there was an elderly female doctor. She came every day and put in a shift on the slot machines. "She's the nicest lady I've ever met," said one of the staff.

I was shouting again. "Yeah, right! Course she's the nicest lady you've ever met!"

Over the past few years this very nice lady had lost four million dollars at that casino.

Her rather bemused son said "Well, she enjoys it."

But a large bit of me says that well, if she was that nice, she could have given her four million dollars to charity.

Or, if she wanted to spend it more selfishly - and it was her money to enjoy as she pleased, after all - then she could have gone on four million dollars' worth of travel, taking her friends with her. (Yes, I know, this might be what I'd do if I happened to have four million dollars).

But endlessly, endlessly feeding it into slots in machines, all day, every day, for the profit of the Hilton empire? I think that's just plain sad.

There's an old joke where a bloke says to a girl "Will you go to bed with me for a million pounds?" and she says "Yes, I will." And then he says, "Okay, then, will you go to bed with me for three pounds fifty?" and she says "Of course not! What do you think I am?"
And he says, "We've already established what you are. Now we're just negotiating the price."

So, as my love of the Penny Falls shows, I'm not against gambling and I could most definitely enjoy it. It's just a question of degree.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Stand and Deliver

One of the books I studied for A-level Eng Lit was Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent.

Don't go reading it on my recommendation though: I hated it. Everyone banged on about Joseph Conrad's beautiful written style - - well it drove me nuts. He was actually Polish and his English was perfect - - - but nobody in England speaks perfect English, and therefore it always seemed to me as if it had been translated.

But one thing stuck in my mind. One of the characters in the novel had got by in life by deciding that "some things don't bear too much looking into" and had stuck to it.

For some reason, I was reminded of that tonight. Perhaps because it's a philosophy I've adopted myself quite often. I'll see something and choose not to notice it, or to act on it. So perhaps I did learn something from The Secret Agent, other than never to read any more novels by Joseph Conrad.

Tonight I went to see the Mooted Theatre's production of Dead Man's Shoes which was written by Direct Personal Management's very own Gemma Head - - - and it was excellent.

It's about an interesting "lost" period in the life of the highwayman Dick Turpin, who turned up at Brough in North Yorkshire at some point and then, when he was hanged, left his various possessions to a mystery woman from Brough, in spite of being married to somebody else.

The play's about the mystery woman from Brough, and how almost everyone chooses not to look at the strange horse-trader in their midst, or to think about where he might have come from.

The story was fascinating, the cast were excellent, particularly Victoria Morris as Martha, the woman from Brough, and there was great music too. And there were men in those period costumes with leather knee-boots, oh yes. Always does it for me.

A packed audience at the Carriageworks in Leeds loved it too and it's going to tour now, hurrah.

I do like the Mooted Theatre Company's website and particularly what they write about theatre there - I hope they don't mind if I quote it:

The Mooted Theatre Co was formed in 2007. We are based in York and believe most of the following most of the time:
  • That theatre should inspire as well as provoke, and entertain as well as challenge.
  • That images matter as much as words, and words as much as images.
  • That theatre is at its best when it is truly theatrical, not a pale imitation of television of film.
  • That if something is old it doesn’t mean it’s dated, and if something is new it doesn’t mean it’s relevant.
  • That our base in Yorkshire is at the heart of what we do, though our work is universal.
  • That suggestion is always more powerful than being literal.
  • That theatre should be fun. Except when it’s sad.

That's just what I believe too.

Thanks to all the cast tonight. They stood, and they delivered.

(Yes, yes, I know. Sorry).

Friday, May 07, 2010

The First General Election that The Communist Missed

The Communist would have cared passionately, of course. He'd have been in front of the television all night, shouting at the screen.

This is the first General Election he's missed of course, and it's only being dead that's made him miss it. Nothing else would have stopped him and actually all last night I could feel him at my shoulder willing me to get involved.

But I didn't. I didn't watch any of the television coverage. I did go and vote, though. I know that in lots of places, the queues were so long that the polls closed before some people could vote. When I turned up at the polling station, however, quite early in the morning, there was just me and the Tory candidate, a blond floppy-haired thing with the kind of face I want to slap.

Now then, the Communist would have definitely disapproved of that last sentence. He didn't believe in personalities, he believed in policies. But sometimes, you have to use your instinct. Sometimes I meet someone and I just know they're great. And sometimes I meet someone and my instinct is to slap them, and I'm old enough to trust my instinct.

Anyway, I didn't make eye contact with Mr Floppy Hair. Last time we met was about five years ago when he was campaigning locally and I couldn't resist joining in. "Look, sonny, you're too young to remember Thatcher's Britain. You'll grow out of all this Tory nonsense when you get a bit older, I expect." I don't think he liked me.

So off he went, yesterday, leaving just me and my piece of paper and my pencil.

Now then, I think I'm going to redesign the ballot paper when I'm in charge. That X doesn't have enough words to express what I feel.

When I'm in charge, there'll be three categories when you vote. As well as choosing the party you choose one of these qualifiying statement:

1) Because they're wonderful and I believe they'll carry out all their fantastic promises.

2) Because they're the best of a bad bunch.

3) Because I think they're crap and they've done a rubbish job in the past but sadly I fear that the other bastards would be even worse.

And then, when the result is announced, it would have the qualifying statement attached to it. So you'd get results like this:

"And so the Purple Party Candidate is elected. The voters would like to add that they believe the Purple Party to be crap, and they've done a rubbish job in the past, but sadly the voters fear that the other bastards would be even worse."

And that would take the smarmy ones down a peg or two.

Anyway, I voted Labour but my ballot paper didn't have the crucial number 3 clause, above, so Gordon Brown will never know how much I disapprove of him, so much so that I nearly voted Lib Dem.

I was pleased that the odious Nick Griffin and his Thug Party didn't get any seats though. You have to consider that Nick Griffin is the very, very best that the BNP can offer. The acceptable, cuddly, stunningly clever, astoundingly witty face of the Thug Party. And have you listened to Nick Griffin for even thirty seconds? - - Yes, precisely. (That's me for the gas chambers if they do get to power, then).

My claim to fame at this election is that I very nearly know someone who very nearly might have become an MP.

Olli and Gareth's friend Tom Scott was a candidate in the constituency of Westminster, as Mad Cap'n Tom the Pirate.

He got 88 votes. I'd have voted for him. He was recently on a team on the excellent and highly entertaining television quiz show Only Connect and they got to the semi-final.

More than this, he once got five Gold Runs on that great television show Blockbusters.

Now then, he's the calibre of person needed to run this country. Everyone else is just a politician.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

There's a Volcano in Iceland

- - and it's got nothing on me.

Because today, I blew my top.

I don't blow my top like that very often. Just when it's the last straw and then a little bit more. And usually, when I'm tired too.

I was in Manchester working with some medical students yesterday evening and it went really well, but it meant that I didn't get back till late. And then I was working with some students in Leeds first thing this morning - - and actually, when I woke up I thought "I'm too tired to do this job justice" but once it started it went - - well - - brilliantly, actually, with a superb group of students.

So when something quite major, and needlessly expensive, happened today, I just blew. Off like a little rocket. Actually, off like a rather big rocket. For about twenty minutes, non-stop. It didn't involve much bad language but it did involve a huge amount of very focused anger.

It reminded me of the last ever time that I blew my top with the Communist, which was after we came back from visiting my brother in Amsterdam once. Olli - then rather small - and both my parents were trying to get back to Blighty and this involved Schiphol Airport.

Schiphol Airport was a nightmare, especially if - as my parents did - the slightest thing made them panic, and wander off. They wandered off in opposite directions, generally, apparently in a determined bid to get completely lost.

When I found one, the other would disappear. Sometimes they lost me: sometimes they lost each other: sometimes they lost the luggage. Always they bickered, and each blamed the other for these disasters. Olli, I thought, was remarkably tolerant of it all.

When we got home, I finally exploded.

"You and Mum are just completely impossible! I am never, ever going through that airport again and I am never, ever going to any airport with you two again! I will never go back to Amsterdam, never, never NEVER and it is YOUR FAULT!"

As with most top-blowings, there was, of course, more to it than met the eye.

It was partly that I kept hoping that my brother and his family would come back to Britain, and that my parents wouldn't keep telling me quite so often all about the superiority of Holland over England in every way, which felt to me - though I know it wasn't intended to be so - as though it was about the superiority of my brother over me in every way. Even though I've always liked my brother.

That was in 1999. I've never been back to Amsterdam, even though my brother and his family live there, and even though it's a lovely city.

I never went to any airport with my parents ever again.

Yes, I can do Stubborn like nobody else.

I do like Amsterdam, though. Perhaps it's time to go back.

Monday, May 03, 2010

My Saturday Job

When I was a teenager I sometimes worked in the Communist's chemist shop on a Saturday.

I didn't usually serve, because the Communist had two assistants. I did all the jobs that nobody else had time to do. Counting tablets. Cleaning the stockroom in the back. Stacking the shelves.

I quite liked counting the tablets. This was done - in those Ancient Times - by the simple method of picking them up one by one and putting them in a bottle, counting as I went. Later, there was a kind of frame into which I poured them and it would count, say, fifty at once, in a miracle of technology.

For many girls, the idea of a Saturday job in a chemist shop would have been quite appealing. Lots of cosmetics to try.

But even in those days I wasn't really interested in make-up and the Communist was no help with any explanations about any such things.

"Dad, what's this for?"

"It's for selling. I don't know anything else about it."

The Communist worked very hard, I remember, and hardly ever stopped for a break. The shop was always busy and he always insisted that, whatever the assistants were doing, if a customer came in they should stop it and serve them. I liked that and I have often wished that our local chemist would abide by the same principle.

One of the things I most enjoyed was working in the garden. The shop had a flat above it, and a fair-sized garden which nobody ever seemed to tend except me. There was a Victoria plum tree and I used to pick the plums. There was a border at the front, too, and I used to weed it and plant bulbs, looking at the view of distant York Minster.

The Communist and his assistants all wore white coats and I wore one too sometimes when working in the shop. I can still feel their white stiff-cotton texture and can still smell that chemist-shop smell that lingered on the coats. I felt very grown up. I remember once a customer, whom the Communist knew well, came in when I was working there.

"This is Daphne," said the Communist, "my sixteen-year old daughter." I could tell he was proud and I was so proud that he was proud. A customer who was a dentist once came in and commented that the Communist and I had exactly the same teeth. I wasn't sure how to take that one.

The shop next door was - blissfully! - a fish and chip shop. Delicious smells wafted from it every lunchtime. Sometimes, if it wasn't too busy, the Communist would buy us both fish and chips and we would go and sit by the river and eat them.

Of course, I am sure I never told him, because teenagers don't. But eating fish and chips by the river with my Dad was one of the best things of all my teenage years.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

The Secret of the Sounds of the Sixties

I have just discovered why there was so much great music in the nineteen-sixties.

It's because Nature likes to achieve a balance.

Sunrise - - Sunset. The Poles - - the Tropics. Winter - - Summer. That kind of thing.

And so, in the Sixties, on one side of the scale we had the Beatles, the Stones, the Tremeloes, Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Beach Boys and many, many others.

Why so many great groups?

I have found out the secret and it is, because in 1966, hidden away somewhere in Russia, there was this.

In the balance of nature, it took every single top group to tip the scales against it. Go on, I dare you, watch it to the end. Its singer is still around and still with those serial-killer eyes. All together now. "Tro-lo-lo-lo-lo - - - "

Never mind, there's still one day of the Bank Holiday weekend left for you to get it out of your head.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Summing Up

I've had a day of Sums. I am trying to do the agency's monthly accounts before next Sunday's meeting.

In between bursts of Sums I have been sorting and cleaning a very large heap of clothes (not mine) which has been - with wit and considerable accuracy - christened Mount Washmore (again, not by me). I promised I wouldn't show you a photograph, though I'm sorely tempted.

The accounts used to be, until fairly recently, kept in a green A4 file and neatly written in pencil. It was all a bit Dickensian, but it worked.

Now they're on a spreadsheet on a computer and we have bounced into the twentieth century only about ten years too late.

I may perhaps be too old for this kind of thing. When the spreadsheet adds it up I feel the desire to check it with a calculator. And after that I feel the desire to check that with a pencil and a piece of paper.

All this technology is all very well but it doesn't really cater for the idiosyncrasies of how the agency works.

So one of our actors had a cash-flow problem (as often happens with actors as THEY often don't get paid on time) and so couldn't pay her Spotlight subscription in time. So I paid it over the phone on the agency's credit card.

But it didn't work because seconds before, the credit card company had cancelled the card, because somebody had tried to commit fraud with it.

So soon afterwards, Spotlight rang me to say the payment hadn't gone through. So the quickest thing to do was to pay it on my own credit card and then claim it back when some money for the actor came in.

And this week the money for the actor came in, and now I'm trying to find a way of explaining all that in our accounts. So I have a section called "Notes" at the end. I think it will be quite a big section by the end of the year, as this kind of thing happens quite often.

And I keep finding myself, in between doing the Sums, trying to count items of washing for no good reason at all.

It's not so bad with the T-shirts but if I ever get started on the socks it will take me the rest of the weekend. I have done two full loads of socks alone, with several other loads decorated with a side order of socks as well.

Mayday! Mayday! I am submerged in socks and sums.

Ohhh. It IS May Day. Happy May, everyone.