Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Signs of the Times

On Friday I am going to London to film a video for a company's website. I got the call sheet today - - it refers to me as "The Talent". I have to say that I have not been referred to in this way often. Or indeed ever. This video has a producer, a director and a cameraman - - plus me. I feel rather important. Ooh.

Anyway, I thought I'd better get my hair cut, so off I went to the hairdresser's. It's usually packed but today it was nearly empty. "We're closing at four," said Melanie as she cut my hair. "We have no more bookings today."

It was an amazing contrast from how it usually is and I said so.

"Yes," said Melanie, "it's because people are cutting down on their spending, and haircuts are an easy way to do it. For example, they are having whole head colour rather than highlights, because it's cheaper. If I had to pay to colour my hair now, I wouldn't be doing it."

Melanie started training as a hairdresser while still at school, qualified at seventeen, and now she's twenty-two she has been working for five years. She feels sorry for people who don't have jobs and this applies to many of her friends.

"Mind you," she said, "some people of my age have just never learned to work, because they've never had a job, and the older you get, the harder it gets." Good point, I thought.

On my way home I filled the car up with ridiculously expensive petrol. If we'd been told a few years ago that it would be THIS much, we'd never have believed it.

In the garage, as I waited in the queue, a line of smoky-smelling people were buying cigarettes. I looked at the choice, intrigued, because I've never smoked and have never bought cigarettes, not even for anyone else.

The most obvious things on the packets were the warning labels, which stood out far more than the brand names. A good job the buyers know what they're asking for or they'd have to go by the warnings.

"I'll have a packet of twenty THESE WILL KILL YOUs, please."

"Two packs of A SLOW AND TORTUOUS DEATH, please."

Listening to the radio on the way home, I heard a discussion about debt. There was a man explaining how to get help with it: help from the Citizens Advice Bureau and similar.

"And if you say you have debt of a hundred grand on credit cards, they won't turn a hair, so please don't be too scared to say so."

So: what have I learned today? In recession-ridden Britain, some people are getting ridiculously into debt: the more responsible ones are cutting back on everything including haircuts: some people are choosing to blot it all out by smoking and other life-threatening activities.

And I've learned how lucky I am to have work. And, especially, to have work that I enjoy. Blessings duly counted. Phew.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Taxing Thoughts

I paid my tax today. Because I'm self-employed, I have to pay it in two chunks generally: one before the end of January and another chunk at the end of July. This is based on what Mr Taxman thinks I will owe, based on what he thinks I will earn.

It's really not predictable, so what tends to happen is that one year I pay too much and the next year I get a refund. This, sadly, is a payment year.

I work for up to ten different employers. Some of them deduct tax on Pay As You Earn: some don't and pay me the gross amount, leaving it to me to pay the tax owing.

I don't actually enjoy handing the money over, of course - who would? - but I do believe in paying taxes to finance education, the National Health Service, the police, the arts - - and all kinds of other things.

I think, for example, that public transport should be subsidised, and everyone encouraged to use it where possible. I don't like passengers on trains described as "customers" - I think they should be "travellers". There's a subtle difference. Trains should be a public service, not a commercial venture.

It does not, however, please me to learn that millions of taxpayers' money is wasted on inefficiency in all kinds of areas. I'm still thinking of the trains here - - but that is not, of course, the only area in which it happens. And it annoys me when people use the blanket term "inefficiency" to mask huge cuts in services.

It would be interesting to see what would happen if we could choose how our taxes are spent. The government could provide us with a list of areas where the money might be used. They could make a list of a hundred or so things we might spend it on, and we could choose, say, ten of them.

Now there are some disadvantages to this that I can foresee - - very rich people spending it all on subsidies to people who have more than three cars and a house with more than ten bedrooms - - but I'm sure it could be evened out so this didn't happen. Even the choice of things to spend it on could be decided on a one-man-one-vote basis.

If I'm ever in power, I might try it. Because then, surely, we would most certainly get the money spent in the way we choose. If we end up with a country with great holes in its provision - - well, we have that now! My system would be fairer, though. And whenever we grumbled about something that was missing we would know it was entirely our own fault.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Dog I Once Knew

Reading Silverback's highly enjoyable post about the long-haired dachshund Pixie, I thought of a dog I knew years ago.

I was teaching at a secondary school at the time. There were two PE teachers: a man with all the sadistic qualities of Sports Teacher from Hell, and a young woman who was very pleasant.

Sadistic Sports Teacher was one of those who liked everyone neatly lined up all the time. If they weren't lined up then they had to be running about in the rain or - even better - the snow. I think that he felt that shouting at a line of shivering eleven-year-olds proved his masculinity or some such. I wasn't impressed. I think he knew this. We avoided each other as much as possible.

However, his colleague, Sally, was much nicer. She did blow a whistle a bit but I think that goes with the territory for PE teachers. She didn't shout though. I'm sure that Sadistic Sports Teacher didn't like her either.

One day she came into school with a tiny puppy. It was brown and squarish in shape with tiny little legs and a little tail. She had rescued it from someone who had found it and didn't want it.

Very cute, we all agreed, though hard to identify. Mongrel of some kind. Perhaps a bit of terrier? Perhaps part Labrador? Nobody knew. Sally called it Spot, because it didn't have any.

Sally didn't want to leave Spot at home all day so hit on the idea of bringing it to school with her. It could stay in her car when she wasn't teaching. When she was teaching, however, Spot could run round the hockey pitch and generally enjoy itself in a doggy way.

You couldn't do this nowadays, I know. Health and Safety. What if one of the teenagers tripped over the dog, and sustained a dog-related injury? What if anyone was allergic to dogs? What if it bit someone? What if it gave anyone fleas? Or rabies?

However, by an amazing stroke of good fortune, none of these things happened. All that happened was that the puppy had a great time running round the sports pitches, and the teenagers said "Awwww" a lot and were a bit less sulky than usual.

Because Spot was so small, it found it hard to keep up with its owner as she hurtled round the pitch taking an interest in bully-offs and other strange properties of hockey. By lunchtime, the poor thing was exhausted. Sally would sneak it into the staffroom, where it would flop down on the floor, barely able to move. Without any thought for their personal safety re: allergies, rabies, bites etc - the staff would feed it broken biscuits and drinks of water until the bell went and it was time for the poor little thing to start dashing about again.

But never mind. Soon Spot would start to grow, and then it would find the dashing-about far easier.

Except it didn't grow. Well, it didn't grow any higher, anyway. It stayed resolutely at about the height of Sally's ankles. But its body grew longer, and longer, and longer.

People took to looking it and saying, knowledgeably, "Ahhh: it must be part dachshund."

After a few weeks they would look puzzled and say "Have Spot's legs grown at all?"

The answer appeared to be NO. Spot's body got longer and longer and its legs stayed exactly the same. They weren't so much legs as feet attached to its body. It was not a dog that was made for running.

But Spot was happy, oh yes. He had the soul of a Border Collie and didn't know he looked like a speeded-up caterpillar when he ran. When I left the school, some months later, Spot was fully grown and bore a close resemblance to those dogs made out of balloons. Still rushing round the sports pitch. Still collapsing, exhausted, at lunchtime. I hope he had a long and happy life.Link

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Road to Harrogate

The title of this post, for anyone who knows Yorkshire, sounds like a metaphor. "I was born in Leeds but I'm on the road to Harrogate". For Harrogate is a Cut Above. Frightfully refined. It boasts the famous Betty's Cafe for a start.

My cousin's daughter Olivia used to work there. She is dainty and elegant, just like I'm not. I have never set foot in Betty's for various reasons. Firstly, it's jolly expensive and secondly, places like that intimidate me. Anything I didn't drop I'd knock over. Blue-rinsed ladies wearing strings of real pearls would look at me disparagingly as china teacups crashed to the floor and scones bounced amongst the elegant footwear.

However, also in Harrogate is the splendid White Hart Hotel, which is often used for training courses for doctors, nurses and simulated patients. This is much more my kind of thing. Lovely place, fascinating work: and so it was today, though I can't tell you what as it's strictly confidential.

But first I had to get there: and that's why I was on the road to Harrogate at eight o'clock this morning.

It's only thirteen miles, door to door. I had to be there at nine, so I left the house at eight. An hour for thirteen miles!

The trouble is, the road was made before cars were invented. So it's both winding and narrow in places. The speed limit keeps changing. There are roundabouts, and side roads, and agricultural vehicles. However, drivers assume that because it's the main road to Harrogate from Leeds it must therefore be a motorway.

This morning it could indeed be said to resemble a motorway: yes, the M25 around London. There are cars on that road that have been there since the day it opened, unable to escape. It is a kind of circular car park.

This morning the road to Harrogate was dark, and it was raining, and there was lots of spray, and there was nose-to-tail traffic. Occasionally we would reach a foggy bit and it was then that some big flash car would hurtle up behind me at lightning speed and hover there in a kind of "I know the sign says 40mph but LET ME PAST NOW!" way.

I wish that my car had a sign for "Is your wife in the passenger seat in the final stage of labour? Well if not - - GET BACK!"

There were plenty of cars going in both directions. People with delusions of grandeur who choose to live in Harrogate but who are forced to support their extravagant lifestyle by working in "where there's muck there's brass" Leeds. And people who live in Leeds but work in Harrogate and aspire to move there one day and never clap eyes on Leeds again.

It took all my attention, I can tell you. I had to use all three gears. I slipped into the White Hart at one minute to nine and was grateful that quite a few people arrived after me, having met with similar delays.

On days like this I always remember, with pleasure, that I work in different places and don't have the same commute every day. And I count myself very fortunate.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Message on a Bad Line

I found an answerphone message the other day, with a very crackly line.

Unfortunately, I think it was from an old friend of mine with whom I've lost touch - she was living in Holland when last I knew of her.

She asked me to ring her and then gave the number - - which was crackle two crackle 6 crackle crackle - - etc.

I haven't changed my number in years but I'm pretty sure she's changed hers. And I couldn't dial 1471 to find out what the number was as someone else had rung afterwards.

I know she used to read my blog so perhaps she'll see this - - and if so, please could you ring me again and, if I don't answer, leave the number twice, just in case?

Of course, if she doesn't read my blog any more, she will simply think I don't want to get in touch and will probably never try ever again. Sighhhh.

And, actually, because she only gave her first name and the line was SO crackly, it might not even BE her, though it's my best guess. But whoever it was said they wanted to speak to Daphne so I'm sure it wasn't a wrong number - - there aren't many of us Daphnes about, are there?

However, I do know several people with that first name so it's just possible another one of them is thinking "Why doesn't she ring me back? How rude!"

Technology eh? I have already tried the usual methods of seeing if I can contact her - - Facebook etc - - no joy. Sighhhh again. Let's see if this works!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Work as Distraction from Life

There have been lots of things happening in the family that I can't write about on this blog. Lots of things for a worryaholic like me to worry about!

My way of diverting myself from problems has always been to throw myself into work. It became a habit when I was really young. Would I pass the Eleven-Plus exam? Our teacher, the indomitable Mr Storey, never let anyone in his class fail: but we did it by ploughing our way steadily through Further English Progress Papers and Further Mathematics Progress Papers and Further General Progress Papers.

Perhaps it was then that I learned that if I was concentrating very hard on my work, then other worries would fade out for a while.

Then, of course, there was the pressure of grammar school where the ethos was very much "I got eighty-four percent, what did you get?" They gave us masses of homework. I have always grumbled that when asked "What did you do when you were a teenager?" the answer is "My homework." I think it's a shame as - apart from the occasional trip to the theatre - I gave myself very little free time.

You note I say "gave myself" - - yes, I do remember many an occasion where my mother would say "Why don't you stop that now and go to bed?" and I'd reply "No, I just want to finish this essay."

At university, finding I wasn't very interested in the course I was doing, I threw myself into things I was interested in: mostly theatre.

Then, when I entered the world of work as a teacher, I always believed that if I didn't mark their work, the teenagers had no motivation or reason to do it. So I'd be up late at night marking and marking.

Now I work in several areas: the actors' agency, where I spend most of my working time. Roleplay for healthcare professionals in many fields. Teaching Communication Skills to medical students.

Sometimes, looking at the week ahead, I have to take a deep breath and wonder how I'll get through it all. The answer is always - a chunk at a time.

I always make sure I look at briefs for roleplay in good time, just in case there's a vital bit missing, or the printer breaks. I always make sure that I have clothes ready for the next day. If I'm going somewhere new, then I always look at the map and Streetview as well as taking the satnav with me, and I always allow plenty of time.

Some people criticise me for being too much of a planner and not enough "in the moment" and I expect they're right. Yes, yes, there's still a lot of the School Swot about me and I can't seem to help it.

I hate having to do something that I'm not prepared for and I try to make sure it only happens very rarely. I do remember one occasion where there was snow, someone couldn't make it to a roleplay, I had to replace her and I learned the brief whilst running through the snow to the venue, arriving there just in time and being grateful for my abilities to learn a brief very fast (I've had lots of practice!)

One thing that gets me genuinely excited is going on holiday. The other most exciting thing - and you may think this is sad, but it's true - is an offer of a new and interesting piece of work: I just buzz all day with the idea of it.

I'm aware that, especially in these very difficult times, I am really lucky to have work that I love. But I'm also concerned that I really am very bad at stopping working. When I stop working, I start worrying and thinking and getting upset.

I don't think it's particularly healthy. When I see on Facebook or Twitter that people write things like "Day off today - - done nothing but laze about!" I realise that I never, ever have a day like that and perhaps I could do with some.

I want to keep working, of course. But over the next few years, I'd like to learn to stop working for a while without feeling worried and sad. At the moment I can do it while I'm with other people but I just can't do it on my own. If I'm watching television, I'll be ironing too. I want to learn that it's okay to stop for a while.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Crisp and Clear

"No, you haven't got a chest infection," said the doctor. "Your airways are crisp and clear."

"Errrrr - - WHAT?" I thought. "Crisp and clear"? What on earth did he mean?

I've been working all over the place recently, in many different parts of the country, working with medical students and doctors to help with their training.

Today I was a very long way from Leeds, working with qualified doctors, playing someone who wanted antibiotics because she thought she had a chest infection, but didn't have one. There was more to it than that but I can't go into too much detail.

I was struggling rather with the meaning of "crisp and clear" and I reckoned that the woman I was playing would have been struggling with it too, so I asked the doctor what he meant. He was from overseas, but his English was very good. He looked a bit bewildered.

"It means you haven't got a chest infection. Clear. Crisp. You know. Your airways are crisp and clear."

Very poetic, I thought - - it makes my lungs sound like a December afternoon. But I still wasn't sure what the "crisp" bit was.

I moved on to the next doctor, again from overseas, and again with very good English and a very clear voice. On we went with the roleplay.

"So I'd like some antibiotics to clear up the chest infection, please."

"Well, actually, I'm pleased to tell you that you haven't got a chest infection. Your airways are crisp and clear."

AGAIN? At this point I was beginning to feel that I was living in a parallel universe where people spoke in riddles.

"Sorry? What do you mean by crisp and clear?"

"It means they aren't blocked at all. You don't have a chest infection."

Yes, yes, well I KNEW that - - but I just didn't understand the "crisp and clear" bit.

I moved on to the next doctor, who had a British regional accent, and, again, a very clear voice.

On we went.

"So, could I have some antibiotics for the chest infection then, please?"

"Well, in fact, although you have a cough, you don't have a chest infection. Your airways are crystal clear."


All I can think is that the overseas doctors must have, at some point, heard a British doctor using the phrase "crystal clear" and misheard it. I do hope someone else as well as me noticed their Chinese-whispers version of this phrase, and explained it to them. Otherwise they may be telling patients about their crisp and clear airways for a very long time.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

In Praise of Pantomimes

"It's behind you!" "Oh no it isn't!" "Oh yes it is!"

Taking the kids to the panto is an essential part of Christmas for many in the British Isles.

We take it for granted - - and yet, it's a glorious and strangely British art form, dating back years - centuries, even.

People who say they don't like panto have often seen what are - for me - the worst kind: the ones which lazily star some so-called "celebrity" from a reality TV show. Just having the "celebrity" there may, perhaps, pull in the crowds - - but that doesn't mean that they can do the job on stage. Often they stand there like a fish out of water, because they don't have any of the necessary skills.

I'm always very surprised when people don't apparently understand that pantomime requires a huge spread of different skills, all to a very high level. Stick in some minor celebrity and nine times out of ten they'll be a disaster on stage and the rest of the cast will have to "save" them.

The best pantomimes, unquestionably, are the ones which don't have star names, but instead have actors who have the skills and talent needed.

You probably won't have heard of Berwick Kaler unless you live in York - -but he has written, directed and played the Dame in York Theatre Royal's pantomime since - - well, probably since the days of Dick Turpin. He's fantastic at it. Today I saw another superb Dame - - Dominic Goodwin, at the wonderful Georgian Theatre Royal, Richmond, North Yorkshire. Funny, inventive, commanding, gloriously naughty and a shameless flirt with a poor man called Michael who had foolishly sat on the front row.

In case you've never seen a panto (and if not, oh, I pity you!) the Dame is a man dressed as a woman, with superb audience-in-the-palm-of-his-hand skills and great comedy ability, plus superb improvisational skills, the ability to interact with any audience and the ability to cope with just about anything that happens. Oh yes, and he needs to be able to sing and dance too. That's all.

There's also the Principal Boy - - played by a girl, with generally lots of thigh for the audience to admire - - and the Principal Girl, who can often be a bit soppy. In today's glorious Adventures of Sinbad, she wasn't though - - she was a terrific acrobat who was flung all over the stage as the baddie tried to steal her away. Oh yes, and she could sing and dance too.

In fact, all the cast could sing and dance as well as act, and most played instruments, such as the superb Jill Myers as the Princess's mother, who plays the trumpet.

And there were the traditional panto routines - - three people singing a song on a bench, and the baddie keeps stealing one away, in spite of the audience's best shouts to stop this happening. I saw this same routine at the Victoria Theatre, Halifax, last week, with our excellent Ann Micklethwaite (from the agency I work for, Direct Personal Management) as So-Shy in Aladdin. I love it when these traditional routines are reworked and reinvented in different shows.

I love the props and special effects, too - - some are expensive (such as the huge elephant puppet in the Halifax panto) and some are just brilliantly inventive. Today, in Richmond, we found ourselves on the Island of Dunnadoodoo (oh yes we did!) and we sorted out the baddie by throwing bananas at him. Everyone in the audience threw at least one. If you've never hurled a banana at a baddie, you just won't know how much fun it can be.

A thousand bananas have been involved during the run of the show, all knitted from yellow wool by the good folks of Richmond and surrounding areas. Wonderful! Hurrah for pantomimes!

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

New Year's Eve

Ah well, there I was on New Year's Eve, ready to write an entertaining and yet deeply profound post all about the past year. Well that's what I hoped, anyway.

Clearly everyone else had the same idea and that, coupled with the fact that our internet's been at the speed of an extra-slow snail recently (they are trying to sort it out), meant that I just couldn't post at all.

So I harrumphed off and watched telly instead: and since then I've been madly busy: and now it's the fourth of January, which is almost Spring. I hope.

It was strange for me being on my own on New Year's Eve - it was the first time it's ever happened. Stephen had just been started on some new painkillers and they came with a possible side-effect of "may cause drowsiness". In Stephen's case this always means "may cause SEVERAL DAYS OF SLEEP". So he stumbled off to bed before he fell to the ground.

My brother Michael and his family were over from Amsterdam and they took my Mum off to a party at the house of a friend of theirs. YESSSSSSSSSS!

There was a scary moment when she nearly didn't go because she didn't want poor Daphne to be left on her own without some kind of party to go to.

My poor mother is of course old now and she's never going to understand, even though I have told her several times a year since I first learned to say it. I don't like parties in general and I don't like New Year's Eve parties in particular. Oh, occasionally I have been to one that I've enjoyed, but that's very rare. Usually I've just crept away and sobbed in a corner hoping that nobody will notice the Killjoy at the Feast.

Sadly, if my poor mother's there - - and she often has been - she just can't leave it. "Come and dance, Daphne, you can't just sit there."

Jolly party-lovers like my mother who say this kind of thing to you they then think it's rude if you say that you can just sit there, and you will, and please could they go away and leave you alone? The next thing they do is to try to drag you to your feet. And then they get upset if you immediately leave and go home.

I'm not sure why I find New Year so very upsetting but it just makes me think of all the sadnesses and tragedies of the past year and I don't seem able to overcome those feelings when I'm in a group of people singing Auld Lang Syne and watching Big Ben and getting rather drunk and listening to Jools Bloody Holland.

So this year - - okay, last year now! - I was on my own.

I drank two glasses of Baileys and watched telly, and I didn't watch any of the New Year's Eve programmes, and I didn't listen to the bongs of Big Ben and - - for the first time in many, many years - I didn't cry my eyes out.

My mother was most unimpressed with me the next day. She'd had a lovely time at the party. "And what did you do, Daphne?"

"I watched telly. And I didn't watch anything to do with New Year."

She shook her head sadly. "Oh, what a shame."

I know it's practically halfway through January now but I just want to mention how much I enjoyed the holidays I had last year and the places that we visited: many new to me, and some old friends. Some with absolutely astonishing scenery and some places which I loved because they somehow grabbed my heart.

So here's the one I'm choosing as an illustration. I absolutely loved it. Carnlough Harbour, in Northern Ireland, on a sunny summer's evening. Bliss. Thank you, Silverback, for taking us there, and to the other beautiful places in Northern Ireland too.

Happy New Year, everyone.