Thursday, December 31, 2009

Fewer wolves, but still bears

By the time I was born, there were fewer wolves in Wales than in Dylan Thomas' day. But even so, you had to be careful with the bears.

In November, my parents had moved into the ramshackle farmhouse that was to be their home for the next fifteen years. Cold and draughty, they struggled to make it a cosy home for their first Christmas in their own home with their baby. My mother battled to keep it and me clean with little hot water heated in the copper. A neat and proper woman, she liked everything to be "tidy" as we say. She ironed everything with the flat iron, warmed on the top of the range. It was a cold and icy December and every day my father worked long hours, outdoors. His gloves and socks hung over the warming oven of the rayburn to dry off. By December 24th, they were tired to the bone. She dressed the tree and hung up some paper chains but was was exhausted and went to bed before he came home that night. He had been working until nearly midnight to have Christmas Day off.

She was disappointed that he hadn't been there to lay the baby's stocking in the inglenook and put the cheerful presents under the tree. But at least they would be together on Christmas morning and he wouldn't have to get up at five o'clock.

Waking early, she tiptoed downstairs to make him a cup of tea. The doorway at the bottom of the stone staircase opened into the sitting room and the latch was noisy so she left the door open to make her way back upstairs quietly. Boiling the kettle in the kitchen, she heard the baby stir. A snuffly cry that turned into a good morning moan. By the time she'd got back to the latch door, he'd wrapped the baby up and come downstairs. A warm lie-in was not on the small tyrant's agenda.

Anyway, he seemed happy to stay in the sitting room. Strangely happy. Enthusiastic, you might say.

He edged her towards the tree and, amongst the jolly, colourful presents, she saw two parcels wrapped in brown paper. When she asked what they were, he simply shrugged and gave a little sly smile. Opening the first parcel she found an electric iron. Bliss. This wonder of technology lasted over twenty years, flattening all our clothes into obedience.

And in the other parcel was The Bear.

His paws went thin about thirty-five years ago and so I gave him velvet re-treads. His eyes have lost a little of their sparkle but they are original. One ear was chewed by a dog and needed to be stitched back. His fur isn't what it was and so I knitted him this sweater in the sixties. When I was about five, I gave him a bit of a haircut. His nose has worn away to a little snub. In the late fifties, he stopped growling and only said "clunk". Revising for finals in the summer of 1974, I leaned against him as I yawned my way through Lipsey's "Positive Economics". Suddenly, he found his voice. "Clunk ... errrrr", he said. A Keynesian comment, I think.

He celebrated his fifty-seventh birthday on Christmas Day. He's led a great life.

"Clunk ... errrrr"

Friday, December 18, 2009

Bring out the tall tales now

"Years and years ago ... when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed.

Ghosts whooed like owls in the long nights when I dared not look over my shoulder; animals lurked in the cubbyhole under the stairs and the gas meter ticked. And I remember that we went singing carols once, when there wasn't the shaving of a moon to light the flying streets. At the end of a long road was a drive that led to a large house, and we stumbled up the darkness of the drive that night, each one of us afraid, each one holding a stone in his hand in case, and all of us too brave to say a word. The wind through the trees made noises as of old and unpleasant and maybe webfooted men wheezing in caves. We reached the black bulk of the house. "What shall we give them? Hark the Herald?"

"No," Jack said, "Good King Wencelas. I'll count three." One, two three, and we began to sing, our voices high and seemingly distant in the snow-felted darkness round the house that was occupied by nobody we knew. We stood close together, near the dark door. Good King Wencelas looked out On the Feast of Stephen ... And then a small, dry voice, like the voice of someone who has not spoken for a long time, joined our singing: a small, dry, eggshell voice from the other side of the door: a small dry voice through the keyhole.

And when we stopped running we were outside our house; the front room was lovely; balloons floated under the hot-water-bottle-gulping gas; everything was good again and shone over the town."

"A Child's Christmas in Wales" by Dylan Thomas

It snowed last night but as he would have said, not the same snow. Not a dumb, numb thunder-storm of white, torn Christmas cards. I did my best this morning walking my blind more-than-slightly wolfy-looking boy through the snow. We walked the first footsteps across the field and he romped through the snow as playful as a pup.

But still not the same snow. Perhaps it will when I'm There.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Entreat me not to leave thee or to return from following after thee

After their marriage in July 1951, they moved into “rooms”, a common enough experience for a young married couple at the time. Maintaining modesty while edging past your neighbour on the landing was excruciating. There was little privacy for a shy and virginal couple to get to know each other. Despite this, by the Spring of 1952, she was pregnant. They were now desperate to have their own front door but they needed somewhere with premises for his business. Not just as simple as renting a two-up, two-down.

In the Summer, they found a farmhouse. Enough space for a growing family and the business. It was cold, even in August and had no electricity or indoor sanitation. They made a hard decision and went for it. It would need a couple of months of work to make it habitable but by the time the baby arrived, they would be in. A warm kitchen with a range, one bedroom that would serve and the sitting room with a cosy inglenook. The rest would come in time.

They couldn’t afford the rent on the house and the rooms so they each moved back with their parents while the work was done. Every day when work finished, he started all over again to plumb cold water into the house and to connect mains electricity. They reckoned that it would be alright by the end of October. The baby was due on October 19th and they would be ready to move in by the time she was out of hospital. A touch of impatience brought the baby in early October. In between rushing up and down to the hospital he struggled to have everything ready to move in but it wasn’t right. She came home and went back to her mother to wait. Gradually, through November, he made it habitable and moved his possessions in and camped praying the house would warm up to bring his family home. Every day, she would push the pram up the hill and check it out as the small pieces of furniture arrived.

Eventually, the range was reliable and would stay in all night. Masonry stopped falling down the inglenook and the sitting room was marginally warmer than the outside world. There was still frost on the inside of the bedroom window but hot water bottles in the bed and the 2-bar on for thirty minutes before bedtime made getting to bed a short but acceptable dash. It was a cold and dampish Autumn, like most years. Perhaps a bit colder.

They set a date to move back in together. Friday 28th November. He made arrangements to get help with the business so that he could finish early and, with the Morris 8 loaded to the brim, he took all her clothes, linen and the baby’s layette. It was very cold and overcast, a miserable day but, at least, not raining. His parents were there so that there was tea, ham sandwiches and cake when she arrived. She said she could push the pram up the hill and would be there within the hour. The baby was wrapped up well. Anyway, it didn’t seem as cold now.

As they said their last, fleeting goodbyes, the overcast sky whitened and the first snowflakes started to fall.
“I’ll come back”.
“No, I’ll walk”.
“I’ll come back, please don’t walk”.

She lifted the baby out of the pram and climbed back up the steps into her mother’s house and then went back for the pram. Tears rolling down her face, she hugged the baby, refusing to accept that they would have to stay another day. Her mother and sister silently made up the spare bed.
Outside, the snow swirled and impertinently peered in at the window and fell away mockingly to settle on the ground.
Tea was made and refused.

A squeaky car horn peeped. Outside was the little black car, its tyre tracks the only marks in the snow. With no time to argue or debate, the pram was folded up and bundled into the back of the car. And she was in, still holding the baby tightly. The tiny engine raced as they slipped and slid up the hill. Turning into the yard of the farmhouse, they skated to a halt, home at last.

The in-laws had left the tea on the table and set off for home leaving the young couple and their baby on their own for the first time.

Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

From zero to hero

It's been just over 9 months since Spot arrived to live with me.

Yes, that was a great big bald bum. Criss-crossed with scars. He was shaved to the top of his tail which made it look detachable.

Soon the hair began to grow over the scars but he had a saddle-back of shorter hair where the shaved bits were growing back. By the autumn, there was a good covering of hair but you can see where the shaved patch was, even around the top of the tail. It wasn't as waterproof either and if it rained, it would get properly wet. Real, outdoorsy collies are waxed, like barbours. All they do is have a shake and all the water is off them and onto the kitchen floor.

Now that it's winter, I'm pleased to report that he's completely covered with a winter coat.

Let's face it, you can't go out annoying the cat without your coat on.

Monday, November 30, 2009

A bit winterish, eh?

Gone a bit chilly and damp while I've been away, hasn't it?

Thank you for the enquiries about my disappearing act. Not in prison, banged up Mdnight Express style. Morocco was wonderful. Thoroughly enjoyed my trip. The people, the country and the cuisine were great. I've been a bit busy since I've been back and every time I've been on the point of blogging something else has come up. Work, trying to complete the 2009 project There, a bit of an eyesight issue and a friend knocked sideways by illness are some of my feeble excuses for not doing my homework.

Whle I've been blogged off, I've made the Christmas cakes and done some preparation for next month. How about you?

I remember really looking forward to Christmas. Writing to Father Christmas. Helping my parents hang the decorations. Trimmings we called them. Putting out the crib with cotton wool snow around the scene. I don't think that we had worked out that it wasn't likely that there wouldn't have been much snow in first century Judea. Then there were the in between years of not quite liking and not being indifferent to Christmas. Small children make it a happy time though, don't they? But then the world shifted and I was the jam in the Christmas sandwich. Torn between my husband and mother as she became more confused and needy, I needed to be cloned. Exhausted, miserable, I dreaded the event. Too much food, money spent on toys that no-one needed. Horrible.

These days I enjoy the event again. I ignore most of the material nonsense. Yes, there's too much food around but I don't shop like there'll never be any more food. Yes, there are gifts. But not like an Argos-fest. Quiet and contemplative. The children's service. Nine lessons and carols with my god-daughter's family. Friends and family. Cold walks, warm fires. I hope I'm not a Scrooge. But I might be.

Bah humbug.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Like Webster's Dictionary ...

.... we're Morocco bound.

Back soon.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


I was great at getting pregnant, brilliant at being pregnant, just not so clever at staying pregnant. But here we were, within spitting distance of the end, providing you can spit as far as two months or so.

We were very earnest young parents, determined to do everything right. So, instead of going out for my birthday we went to a “Parentcraft” class. All the other parents in the class were nearer the due date, some of them wondering if they would complete the course. We were worried that we might have forgotten something between the end date and the arrival.

My father-in-law’s birthday was at the end of November and my brother-in-law in early December. They were both smitten by the idea that the baby would arrive on either of their birthdays. I was more alarmed that we would go late and get perilously close to Christmas. Daft tart.

After the excitement of our Parentcraft session, I was ready for bed. My husband fell asleep in front of the television and didn’t wake till after midnight. Just as well, it was the only sleep he got that night.

As he came to bed, I woke with a start. Heaving myself off the side of the bed, I realised that something was amiss. Labour was in full swing.

Going through the ambulance bay, there was an ambulance waiting, doors open, lights on ready to go. It was for us. They’d called a London teaching hospital to see if they could take us. A quick check in the ante-natal suite sent us to the delivery room not the ambulance bay. It was all going too quickly.

“We normally ask parents if they would like to have their baby baptised”. No. No. NO. I was never going to admit that I might lose her.

The ups and downs of the next days and weeks will stay with me forever. I remember the intense blueness of the sky as I gazed out of the hospital window on October 8th. The day before had been summer-ish. I had taken a day off and sat in the garden for my lunch. Autumn crept in as we trudged through each agonising day. When people say “one day at a time”, that’s exactly how we lived. Life developed a new rhythm of days in the hospital, sitting by the side of her incubator. Stroking her back when her ears turned blue-ish. Learning to handle her delicate, downy limbs.

Gradually, she grew. Each 5g gained was a triumph to record. The sucking reflex came and her little tongue would curl and stick out as the feeding tube filled her tiny belly. I could cradle her shoulders between my thumb and forefinger, her arm running along the length of my forefinger.

I watched other babies come and go. The big babies who needed to recover from a difficult labour. One such babe was over 3 times the size of my little elf. Other babies needed a day or so of help and then went home. Some were very ill and needed the privacy of a cubicle. Shocked parents with faces bruised from crying as the hospital chaplain stayed with them.

Gradually she grew. 10g increments. At 1.8kg, they moved her to a crib. All her energy went in keeping warm and we hovered on the brink of returning to the incubator. But then she made progress again. Wakeful and alert, she would fix her eyes wide open and would gaze, small and furious, into my face.

Home. I remember dressing her in this little outfit. A friend’s mother had knitted the jacket and bonnet from a doll’s pattern.

Home. Chaos. We never did finish those Parentcraft classes. Do you suppose it’s too late to go now?

Happy Birthday, Madette.

May you live all the days of your life

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

What every woman wants ....

So I went out for dinner. Rather a trendy restaurant. A glass of fizz. Shared a bottle of wine. After all, I wasn't driving, was I?

Arrive home, to see the house lit up like Blackpool illuminations. As I get out of the car, a fire engine, all blues and twos pulls up on the drive. Followed by another one.

My alarm system has been playing up. It phoned the mother ship and they phoned me. I was out, having a birthday. It said that the smoke alarm was sending out a signal. So they called out these hunky firemen.

Tomorrow, ADT will be sending out an engineer to check out the system. I'll bet he's drop dead gorgeous too.

Woo hoo.

Heinz Variety Birthday

Oh dear ... how could I have got this old? There's still a 23 year old lurking inside.

Growing old is mandatory; growing up is optional.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Like a fish needs a bicycle

Love. Not much of an expert. I’ve been in love a couple of times. I loved my husband truly, madly, deeply and then dearly, solidly, faithfully but when love receded, we were left, two people in middle years with no common ground. Two people locked in separate towers. The loving companionship that I’d looked forward to once our children were grown wasn’t there. No shared interest, unless you counted a whopping great mortgage. I fell in love with the man who promised to share the rest of my life with me. To love and care for me. Beyond the physical, we shared so many things. Books, music, ideas. I never stopped loving him. He buggered off.

So here I am, on my own and enjoying the equilibrium. Happy enough. Not enough of an expert in being in a happy relationship to dare to offer any advice to anyone. I do know a bit about unhappiness and, umm, being middle-aged. And I can smell and taste unhappiness in a house made miserable with a toxic relationship.

Once the passion draws back and we’re left looking into the distance, there has to be more than love to keep us going. Once the children are grown and the mortgage paid off, there has to be a sustaining friendship. Knowing what will interest the other. Taking pleasure in surprising the other with small treats. Sitting companionably in the car not needing to talk. Respecting each other’s independence as well as anticipating their needs.

I have friends who have enjoyed long, loving, faithful and respectful marriages. I read many blogs where people find companionship and solace so I know that it’s doable. They have willingly given up the hurly-burly of the chaise-longue for the deep, deep peace of the marriage bed.

So this brings me to my friend. Her husband is rude and disagreeable. He makes no effort to be welcoming and polite to people. If you don't agree with him, you are automatically labelled as stupid. He feels no awkwardness in shouting at visitors.

But much worse is the way that he treats my friend, his wife. The person he promised to love and honour.

He belittles her at every opportunity. She appeases him. He denigrates her looks and figure. She worships him. He criticises every opinion that is not his own. She brings him titbits and morsels to please. He drives her friends away by his foul moods. She excuses him.

I read a quotation by Nietzsche “It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages."

Watching them, I see no friendship, only an abuser and victim. For years, I've kept my, admittedly mouthy, gob shut. Of late, other mutual friends have deliberately taken me aside to talk about the situation. Indeed, I gave a stranger (to me) a lift and within 10 minutes, she had brought the subject up.

Someone asked me if there is any likelihood that my friend will read this. Not bloody likely. He supervises her use of the internet and filters her emails.

This fish don't need a bicycle like that.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Middle Earth

For all of you who have wondered whether I'd disappeared, here are some photographs that I took a couple of weeks ago. The support stocking being off and the holes in the leg just looking ugly but not hurting, I joined a fabulous walk.

The Shire

JRRT stayed near here and this landscape is believed to have been the inspiration for some of his Middle Earth passages. In the distance, you can see the highest point in the Brecon Beacons. The river meandering through is the Usk. The sky really was that blue and the greens were that green. Of course, the only way you get a really green landscape involves quite a lot of rain. Shame about July and August, or the monsoon season as we've learnt to call it.

A harebell - campanula rotundifolia

Also called witches' thimbles, fairy bells and Old Man's bells (where the old man is the Devil). This little clump was at the top of the hill. Maybe Tolkien saw elves there as well.

Spottie Boy enjoying a rest at the top

Look, he's got fur on his back again. Isn't he handsome? Not the poor, bald and scarred / scared boy who arrived last April.

See I knew that I'd stop being a whining old git. Some of the crap has diminished and when I read other people's blogs, I know that I have a lot to be happy about.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A mountain of poo

I'd like to apologise for the image. I hope you weren't eating or suffer from a delicate constitution.

Just lately, I haven't felt much like blogging. Or at least, not blogging without whining.

Rather than making me happy relaxed, my holiday ended up being cut in half and I just seemed to be stressed and miserable. Lots of stuff got in the way of it being a happy time. Only stuff, but just adding to the small hillock of manure.

Partly, this was down to the fact that I sussed out a month or so back that the legs weren't all they were cracked up to be. In the hot weather back in June (yes, there was some but it was before the school holidays), the right one started to swell up. Only a little bit to start with and you probably wouldn't have noticed. Except, my shoe was too tight. Then there was this tell-tale vein snaking its ugly way down my shin. And a big bruised area that hung around under the skin and was just slightly uncomfortable. Someone dropped a carrier bag containing ring binders onto my leg and immediately it started to swell up with even more bruising under the skin. And just didn't go away. A trip back to see the consultant was already planned and I knew what he'd say. So last Wednesday, off I went for a bit more embroidery. More messing about with support stockings. The dressings came off on the weekend and, as I expected it all looks horrible. Yes, yes, I know it's transient and even today the bruising is much less. But just at the moment, the support stocking has worn a raw patch at the back of my knee and my leg throbs like bloody hell if I'm not either walking or resting it up. I've had it all done before, so why am I so down in the dumps this time?

Madette, my lovely clever baby, has been bitterly disappointed. Something that she wanted so much hasn't worked out. The letter arrived and it was a thin letter. We knew that if it was good news, it would be a fat letter. She asked me to open it. It was kind and thoughtful beyond the need to just give the news. But it didn't stop it breaking her heart. And there is nothing I can do to make it better. All I can do is hug and talk and listen but I can't make it different.

On Saturday evening we went out for a little while and when we came back, lovely blind Spottie Boy had emptied the partly full washing machine. And strewn the laundry all over the floor. When he'd finished that, he had a little chew at the washing machine seal. And pulled it out with some little nibbles. It took me nearly three hours yesterday morning to get it back in place (and work out that the seal wasn't ruptured). My finger tips are raw. My arthritic knuckles are swollen. Last night I couldn't use the knife and fork properly at dinner.

Yes, I know that this is a bleat. Any one of these little turds of unhappiness could be dealt with. All together, they have just overwhelmed the regular mountain of poo. Normally, I can just get on with the daily dose of poo. In fact, I'm the one that turns up with a shovel to help out for other people. But just at the moment, I've lost the ability to keep shovelling.

My fingers will mend. My leg will mend. My Madette's heart will mend.

I just didn't need any of it to be broken in the first place.

Anyone got one of these to lend out? I'm all composted out.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Summer 1983 was wonderful. Long sunny days spent playing in the garden waiting for the arrival of Junior Mad. Madette was a delicious little animal who loved to fill her sunhat up with water and hurl it at her resting mother.

After all the scares of Madette's early arrival, I was desperate to avoid seeing the inside of another neonatal intensive care unit. At 27 weeks, we had a few contractions. They subdued them and put me on ventolin for the duration. A scan at 33 weeks showed everything going according to plan. I was just ecstatic to have reached 33 weeks. They talked about an elective C-section at 37 weeks given the size of the monster versus my small frame. Ha! 37 weeks. If only.

At 34 weeks, I talked to the team at the hospital. Cut a deal. If I could get beyond 36 weeks and the baby was in good general health and it all went well, they would treat us as a normal full-term delivery. I bargained with the Devil to get to the end with a lovely healthy baby.

The sand drained through the hour-glass and I reached 35 weeks. One more week to go. Just hang on in there, little one. Monday I saw the midwife. She said you're not going to be here this time next week, are you? No. I knew that already.

Wednesday, the last day of week 36, was filled with low level back-ache. Just ignore it. Wait till it becomes more interesting before registering it. By the early evening, I'd tidied the house into submission and made sure The Bag was packed and repacked.

Staying with my "keeping it normal" plan, we went to the swimming pool for Madette to have a splash with her dad. I opted out. We hadn't planned a water birth.

After the swim, Madette went off for bedtime to a friend. We watched the clock move slowly through midnight. I'd won. I'd kept my part of the deal. We'd made it through the 36 week barrier. Old Harry smiled over my shoulder.

Junior Mad was born at 04:04. At just under 3kg he weighed nearly twice his sister's birth weight. No high tech delivery. No audience of medical staff and students. I screamed bloody hell and then pop. There he was. Small, peaceful man left in my arms while the midwife cleared away. I unwrapped the blanket and stroked his small perfect hands. Slim fingers, oval nails. Just like my dad, who would never see him.

We moved to the post-natal ward to wait out our time before going home. Babies were kept in the main nursery overnight so he would be there until 8 o'clock. Just before 8, a nurse appeared and said that they were going to move him to special care since he was a bit cold in the main nursery. No. I struggled out of bed. No. Angry, tearful, I composed myself and explained that I'd kept my side of the deal. They had no right to fuck it up by letting him get cold. Ignoring the remonstrations that I hadn't rested for my required four hours, I whirled off to the special care unit, flinching at the sound of the apnoea mattress alarms. Get out of my face, Beelzebub. This wasn't part of the deal.

Holding my babe close, I refused to move. His temperature returned to normal almost immediately. The main nursery had a large window thrown open and the first cool autumn morning air was filling the room. All the babies were a bit chilled. Junior Mad just happened to be the newest one to arrive. Grudgingly, I accepted some breakfast but wouldn't let him out of my sight.

The consultant arrived for the ward round. Perhaps, he should stay in for the day? The consultant saw my jaw set and had another flick through the notes. Feeding normally ... lots of experience with a small baby ... healthy in every respect... no reason not to go home. I swallowed the urge to make a sharp comment about knowing how to keep new babies warm as well. A call to the post-natal ward for a quick check over by a doctor for me and that was it.

Home. Watching the small pulse at the top of his head. Skin against skin. Home. Time to keep my bargain with the Devil. He came to extract his payment. No, not my other child. Not even my immortal soul.

Into the hands of Madette, he thrust a small battery operated dog. A consolation for the baby brother who had just invaded her life. It walked, it barked. It enchanted Madette. It drove me nuts. Every time I settled down to feed Junior Mad, she picked the thing up and off it would go. Twenty-six years on, I can still hear it.

Thanks, Satan. You're a mate. I took the batteries out.

Happy Birthday, Junior Mad

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Wrong Vampire

In 1967, Roman Polanski directed "Dance of the Vampires". A comedy. Yes, THAT Roman Polanski. You know, the one who directed family films like Rosemary's Baby. The synopsis of the plot of Dance of the Vampires runs "The old bat researcher, professor Abronsius and his assistant, Alfred, go to a remote Transylvanian village looking for vampires. Alfred falls in love with the inn-keeper's young daughter Sarah. However, she has been spotted by the mysterious Count Krolock who lives in a dark and creepy castle outside the village ". Along the way they encounter Shagal, the inn-keeper, played by Alfie Bass . Shagal also happens to be a vampire. A Jewish vampire. When a young woman tries to fend off Shagal with a crucifix, he responds "Oy Vey, have you got the wrong vampire".

One of the classic moments of film comedy.

If you've never seen the film, then wait for a lovely cold Saturday evening to hire it. Stay in with a bottle of wine and your favourite sit-in-front-of-a-movie munchies. And prepare to shed tears. It's an absolute hoot.

In the meantime, get out there and give blood. No excuses.

Do something amazing today

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon

After my misanthropic, jaundiced eye on the world yesterday, I offer you something a little bit different.

In addition to all the claptrap angels type of email, I also regularly get the ones that warn you about the people who will offer you perfume and drug and steal from you or the ones that tell you about another health scare. There's a lovely load of rubbish going around about red lipstick. The redder the lipstick, the more deadly it is. Between that and the new deadly computer virus that none of the anti-virus vendors can detect, my mailbox gets about 10 of these emails every week.

I'm a bit of skeptic if not an outright cynic. I look at these things and start with the assumption that that they're not true. If you go to the snopes site, you'll see these urban myths and scare stories deconstructed. Invariably, these emails exhort you to send them on to other people and thus save their lives.

But the fact that our friends and families send these things on tells us a couple of interesting things about our interaction with other people, doesn't it? Firstly, we tend to believe what we are told in good faith by those who love and care for us. Secondly, that they care enough to send these things on. Isn't that good? So I try to keep my cynical gob shut or point them at a reasoned explanation. Of course, it doesn't always work and I may get a flea in my ear.

Back in my consequences post, I suggested that we have an obligation to care for ourselves, body and mind. Don't waste your doctor's time with the trivia. If an aspirin and a lie down will get rid of the problem, then take the bloody aspirin. But when we find an irritating little lump or suddenly active mole or blood where there shouldn't be any, we should take it seriously. And go to the doctor. And not be fobbed off. Don't assume that your GP is lazy or an idiot, but they're busy. And only you know your body. And if you really believe that there is a problem, be persistent. It may be comforting to be told that it's probably nothing. But it's not comforting to find out that "probably nothing" is now acute or worse.

So where is this leading? I followed a link and found myself at an amazing blog. Renee . This lovely lady has breast cancer. No lump. Did you hear me? No lump. But she knew that there was a problem and had this horrible nagging doubt for the months that it took for the correct diagnosis to be made. She doesn't castigate her GP because it's a rare form and the GP had never seen it before. Of all the breast cancers, it only makes up 1 to 5%. If you read one of her early posts, she describes the symptoms and so on. Don't read it if you're a hypochondriac. It's very rare. But if you or someone you know, has unexpected changes in a breast, then have a look at her post you don't need a lump .

This being persistent thing is particularly important for those of us in the "Invisible Generation". Fiftysomethings and onwards. We're supposed to be saggy and wrinkly. Everything's gone south. We get aches and pains. We may have to get up to pee in the night (you know I mean you chaps here). We're supposed to get tired. We're a bit more round in the middle than before. Ha! So some little reminders:

Blood coming out of any orifice
Big clue here: blood belongs on the inside. If we cut ourselves, it comes out. For the girlies, remember we get periods about every 4 weeks. More often may happen once in a while. Once you've been through the menopause, they don't come back. We may get a second childhood, but we don't get a second puberty.
That roll of soft white paper hanging on the wall in the bog should not have any red stuff on it once you've used it.

Tits, balls, come on, you must know what they feel like by now. No lumps.

Strange little things that pop up on our skins. Probably nothing but if you spent every summer in the 60s and 70s lying on a beach covered in chip oil and reading a bonkbuster, check it out.

Getting fat, getting thin
Ok, we may get a bit rounder but not enormous. And if a guy looks like the baby is due any day, don't start knitting. Thin. How desirable. Not if you have no appetite or feel full up or feel queasy. Indigestion after a normal meal? And we may be back to the blood thing too.

This is NOT the default option for middle and old age. Pain is insidious. What was a minor ache may creep towards agony but we forget that pain is not normal and we just learn to live with it. There may be a certain amount of pain associated with the knees, hips, hands because of wear and tear but this should not be a reason to stop doing anything in your life. And that includes a good shag. And if you're on your own, then your hands need to be your best friends not agonising little claws. How the devil will you operate the vibrator otherwise?

Tiredness and sleep
Sleep is lovely isn't it? I adore that moment of slipping into unconscious warmth. Sleeping as an Olympic sport is not lovely. It means we're missing out on such a lot of life. Being awake at 2 am with only your hands to keep you company is not such a good thing either.
Waking up over and over again for a pee is not so good. And for the gentlemen, when you go, you should go. Not stand in the chilly bathroom for 20 minutes, go back to bed and repeat the same thing over again.

My memory started to wobble when I was pregnant with Madette. I'm not sure that it ever came back properly. My mother had dementia. I know the difference. We should still have the same reasoning power and memory. It's not normal to lose your marbles. It's a terrifying prospect, isn't it? But it could be made better by treatment or, tragically, worse by other medication.

Having checked out that you can pee normally, haven't left any telltale streaks of blood anywhere, enjoyed a good meal, can still see the scales when you get on, don't need WD40 on any of the joints, are lump and bump-free and can still manage the crossword, get out there and have fun. Hang-gliding, track-day driving, mountaineering, dancing, shopping. Whatever. None of this is about immortality, it's about avoiding premature death.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Angels and Demons

Are you pissed off with those sweet, tender emails (usually with flying angels) telling you how to live life and inviting you to send them on to 3, 5, 7 or whatever number people you have in your address book. No? Well, it must just be grumpy old me then.

So in lieu of that stuff, here are some words of wisdom from Scott Adams.

"Dance like it hurts, love like you need the money, work when people are watching"

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Wrong Stuff

Not so long after the tragic and early death of my brother tragic and early death of my brother , my mother decided that I needed to mix more with children of my own age, preferably little girls.

I really knew boys better than girls, except for school. The boys went to Cubs where they did dramatic stuff like tracking in the woods, cooking over camp fires and, most exciting of all, used penknives. I couldn’t wait.

The first blow was that I couldn’t be a cub. Missing the vital Y chromosome, I was excluded from the Masonic life of woggles, dib-dib-dib, and bob-a-jobbing. I howled with rage. I wanted to be a boy.

Eventually, I was offered Brownies. When we arrived that first evening, Brown Owl was busy with all the dun-coloured little girls. Tawny Owl explained that, if everything went well, then I could make my Brownie Promise and have my own shapeless little brown sack to wear, complete with beret. Effort and application would lead to badges, she beamed. Yes, but what about the weaponry? I wondered. When would I be able to have a penknife? Her smile slipped slightly sideways as she steered me towards the group of little girls. My mother shot out of the door as fast as possible. She’d see me afterwards. Glancing over her shoulder, she gave me a hard stare and a reminder to behave myself.

Instead of setting off for the woods, we went into a big hall. Not on the plan. Which Six would I like to sit with? The Elves, The Pixies? Ok, no knives at the moment but a bit of magick. Oh, yesss. I could do that.

I sat cross-legged on the floor waiting for the incantations to start. Nothing doing. We did some dancing, hopping around on one foot and holding hands. This was getting tedious. There were some badges to award. Handicrafts involving sewing and knitting, demonstrating you could stand on one leg or skip, service requiring you to serve tea and cakes. Boy, was I getting pissed off by now.

Next up was a senior Brownie making the passage to Guides. We all sat in a circle around the Toadstool as this poor galumphing child was hauled over the plaster toadstool by a huffing and puffing Brown Owl and Tawny Owl. The members of the troop all sang, except me.

To be fair, I had no idea what was going on.
To be honest, I didn’t much care, either.

The child next to me asked why I wasn’t singing. I could have said it was because I didn’t know the words. Too easy. I said that I wasn’t singing because it was silly. No, it’s not hissed the knowledgeable one. I turned my complete disdain on her and announced loudly that the whole darned thing was silly.

The next thing I was skimming along the floor with my toes barely touching the floorboards. Was this the promised magick? Nope. Just me being hauled out of the hall at top speed by Tawny Owl. The full anger that can only be generated by a menopausal woman dressed up in a paramilitary uniform came blasting my way. When she paused for breath, I yelled back. Not only was it silly, but I was there under false pretences. There was none of the promised knife wielding and I wanted nothing to do with the stupid, stupid Pixies and Elves. My torrent of rage was brought to a halt by a stinging across the legs. She’d slapped me. Grabbing me by my upper arms, she pushed me down to sit on the steps. Sit there till your mother comes back.

By the time she returned, my fury had slipped away leaving tears and a large red weal on my legs. “Not the right time ..”, “ Perhaps when she’s older …”. Fragments of rejection.

We walked home in silence, my mother rigid with humiliation. She explained to my father that I wouldn’t be going back. She turned to me and asked what I had to say for myself. Hugging the dog, I explained that none of this would have happened if I could only be a boy.

He picked up his cap and a bucket. “Coming to feed the chickens, lovely?”

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Another throw of the dice

A little probability conundrum.

About twenty years ago, I worked in a very sociable office. The camaraderie was great and we tended to do team dinners and so on. One of the team was a young man, a delightful carrot-top, in the "sandwich" year of his degree. He went back to university but stayed in touch. We bumped into each other occasionally in the nineties but lost touch by about 1997.

Last week we made contact through a business social networking site. We exchanged a few catch up emails and shared family photographs. Carrot-top remembers my children when they were youngsters and was stunned to see photographs of them all grown up. I was delighted to see his wonderful red haired genes have appeared in both his daughters.

He suggested that, the next time I was in his neck of the woods, we should catch up for lunch. Turns out we share the same neck of the woods. In fact, the same tree. Carrot-top works at Number 55 and I work at Number 82.
We laughed. A coincidence.

We met for lunch and rabbited away like crazy with a dozen years' of catch up. I brought him up to date on my children's growing up years. My son, a physicist, studied for his first degree at the same university as his brother teaches. Physics.
We laughed. A coincidence.

Carrot-top enquired if Junior Mad had ever had anything to do with the particle physics side of the department. Not for his first degree, I replied, but funnily enough ... The penny dropped. Dr Carrot-top. Carrot-top's older brother. Senior Research Fellow. Dr Carrot-top. Supervising Junior Mad's PhD.
We laughed. A coincidence.

Care to work out the probabilities? Some of these factors are independent and have no link at all to each other and others are connected.

The likelihood that, if we met again, we would work out the coincidence, would be close to 100%. Not definite, but close. Say 95%

That my son went to university in the first place? Probably close to 100% again, given his background. It's close to 40% for the wider population but we know that children of parents with degrees are more likely to go into higher education. Let's call it 75%.

That my son chose to study Physics? A relatively unpopular subject. Say 5% out of the total of subjects studied.

That his brother and my son are are at the same university? There are 85 universities in the UK teaching some sort of Physics. Slightly less than 1%

That his brother supervises my son? About 10% of Physics graduates go on to do a PhD. Quite often they stay at the same insititution. Say about a quarter. Again connected to the whole university and physics thing above.

That we should work so close to each other? We were in the same field twenty years ago so we would be more likely to be working in the same area. There are roughly 120 streets / zones where we would be likely to work. Less than a 1% chance.

Just on my fingers and toes, it's about 1 in eleven million. Still, better odds than doing the National Lottery.

You didn't know I had that many toes did you?

Sunday, July 19, 2009


MPhil (Cantab)


Thursday, July 16, 2009

In case of an oink

Ok, not a joke but it got your attention, eh?

I've filched this from Family Affairs , since she has some concise and sensible words on Swine Flu for UK residents, in case you need them sharpish.

Symptoms include a high temperature (38C/100F or higher) and two or more of the following:
sore throat
runny nose
limb or joint pain

Follow advice at or call NHS Direct on 0845 4647 (08454 242424 in Scotland).

If you are still worried, contact your GP who can prescribe Tamiflu if required.

Do not go to your pharmacy, surgery or A&E without first speaking to your doctor. A friend or relative should collect Tamiflu for you if you are the one that is not well. So beforehand, make sure that you know someone who can be your "flu buddy".

Let's also keep some perspective on this. It still seems to be a mild type of flu. Yes, we see reports in the media of deaths. And these are very sad for those families. But in a bad year, seasonal flu contributes to an extra 20,000 premature deaths. Swine flu like seasonal flu will be worse for people in poor health.

So, Mr Mainwaring, don't panic.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A game of consequences

My mother believed in Causality, especially when it came to Blame. When something happened it was the direct result of an action. A fine example of Newtonion Physics operating in real life. So when I went into premature labour and Madette popped out some two months ahead of schedule, the first question my mother asked “What did you do?”. Labour had started in the early hours of the morning. It woke me up. So the answer to the question was, “Nothing”. It just belonged in the “stuff happens” category. Probably if you had the diagnostic tools, you could trace it back to something defective in my physiology but there was nothing about the days or even months before that would have given the game away.

A friend, not part of Explaining Nothing , is given to burbling on about Fate. They mumble about Fate having a hand in our lives. We were meant to do something, go somewhere because of Fate. No it wasn’t. Some things just happen at the same time. They’re called coincidences. Sometimes they’re good and sometimes they’re bad. Sometimes we take control of our own lives and don’t pass the buck to poor old Fate.

It’s written in the Stars. Pre-ordained. I share my birthday (date and year) with Vladimir Putin. So we are supposed to share the same love of justice, being even-handed and diplomatic. Well, we both seem to be running to fat in middle age. That’s because we’re Librans. I haven't asked Vlad recently but I put it down to cake. Which one of us would you be most afraid of? Just because I don’t have the ironmongery to hand, doesn’t make me nicer. But it’s got nothing to do with our birthdays.

Rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has a lot of useful pointers for everyday life. “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” I suppose it’s at least a statement of good intent. Isn’t it a shame that we are having such a both turning them into reality. They are known as mitzvahs to the Jews. They've got 613 of them to help the individual and the nation come closer to God and to holiness. However, being closer to the Palestinians seems to be giving the state of Israel a devil of a time with the whole reality of rights. While I’m on the subject, I happened to notice which states hadn’t got round to signing or ratifying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Amongst the usual suspects are Saudi Arabia, Brunei, Singapore. And the Vatican. Yes, you read that correctly. The Vatican. Please someone explain that to me. Or better still, go and explain it to them.

But these rights. Yes, some of them are in the bleeding obvious category. Born free and equal in dignity and rights. Right to life, liberty and security of person. Not subject to to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. It almost makes you weep for humanity that we have to write these things down.

Perhaps it’s not rights that we need but some obligations. For someone to enjoy their rights, someone else needs to be fulfilling their obligations. So here is my “Declaration of Obligations”:

The obligation to care for your parents when they are old and frail. To sit with them as they leave this life behind. To argue with the bureaucracy for them to give them dignity and comfort.

The obligation to care for your children from the moment of their conception. They did not ask to be conceived. Give them unconditional love while helping them to understand their obligations and realise their potential. To help them grow into fully capable adults able to manage their own lives when you have gone.

The obligation to care for your partner, to support and love so that they can be happy and fulfilled. And through thick and thin.
Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds

The obligation to see everyone as individuals because, if you recognise them as each one precious and unique, you will know that you have no right to torture or degrade them or treat them less than yourself.

The obligation to care for the planet so that you don't diminish other people's rights to security, shelter, food.

The obligation to care for your animals. Feed, love, tend with compassion, even when it means letting them go.

The obligation to care for yourself so that you do not diminish the total of human happiness and well-being. By failing to look after your body and mind you deny someone else the possibility for care.

So, not Blame, Fate, the Stars or even Rights. Stuff happens. Deal with it. And remember your Obligations.

What are yours?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Wrinkled Lemon

Last week I picked up the "Eat up your leftovers" campaign from Home Mum of Two and I have tried to keep a diary of what I cooked or prepared or bought and what happened to any leftovers.

But before we get into the finer points of my food diary, you should know that I am very boring and, therefore, on work days breakfast is invariably porridge and lunch is always a salad and fruit. The only leftovers are the apple cores, banana peels, orange pith and tea bags. Even I struggle to eat them up. We now have a green bin in the office so that we can dispose of food waste.

Asparagus spears with a slice of ham and a lump (not a slice, I'm afraid) of homemade bread.

Munched a few strawberries. Strawberries in season are such a treat. To have strawberries and asparagus in the same meal. Heaven. I try to avoid these out of season since, though they look good, they rarely taste of much. Hulls and calixes went on the compost.

Leftovers The end bits of the asparagus. But since this is new season's asparagus, the whole spears are still quite tender and the ends have been diced up and put in the freezer to make soup.

Jacket potato with homemade vegetarian chilli. A few weeks ago I made a pot of this for visitors who couldn't come because I had some kind of flu. Probably not pig flu, but since one of my visitors is not in good health, we gave it a miss. Leaving me with a bucket of the stuff. It's quite tasty but I find it impossible to cook a dish like that for less than six. And I'm mainly on my own these days so I save up this kind of cooking for visitors and then I can have a few small, individual leftover portions. This has been frozen in individual portions. I'll likely be still eating it for the London Olympics. There's a thought. Do you suppose they've got catering sorted out?

Ate up the remaining strawberries.

Salad with grilled mackerel.

Leftovers The mackerel skeleton had quite a lot of flesh so I boiled it up quickly to create a fish stock. Look away now if you're squeamish. The bits of head meat detached beautifully and a patient Spottie Boy was rewarded by his Omega-3 treat. The stock is in freezer for make a fishy risotto. The now naked skeleton was wrapped in newspaper and binned.

Went to see the National Theatre's "outside broadcast" of Phedre at my local cinema. It started at 7pm so I had to dash in, walk and sort out dinner for Spottie Boy and then get to the cinema.
Thought I'd grab a pot of yoghurt before I went out and then have something to eat when I got in after the performance. It wasn't going to be too late and I'd be back by 9:30 when I'd have some Marmite on toast.
It's probably not the sort of play that goes well with your dinner. I went with a friend who brought a box of chocs. There's very little that can put me off chocolates. Phedre is more like Eastenders than the Archers. In fact, they knock the Windsors into a cocked hat when it comes to dysfunctional. It's about an older woman who falls for a younger man. Not just an "Am I having a hot flush or is he really cute" kind of a thing. A howling and shrieking and tearing her hair and throwing off all her bling kind of a thing. And did I mention that he's her husband's son from an earlier marriage? And it gets worse ... her husband goes missing and she thinks he's dead. Result. She can chuck away her big knickers, put the bling back on and throw herself at the young man. Who, by the way, has the hots for a pretty young girlie who's been forbidden by his father to marry anyone so that her family will die out. You might gather he is not that keen on the menopausal baggage. In fact, he's a bit of a po-faced prig. He's been "saving himself". Ha! So when he thinks his father is dead, he thinks "Result, me and pretty young girlie can be happy ever after". Then his father returns. Bugger. Not dedded after all. As you might guess, it's all downhill from there. Lies and plots and counter plots. Quite shouty too. Blood and guts trailed across the stage.

Leftovers Box of chocolates. In fridge for a less messy evening.

There for dinner since I sloped off early from work. Collected Red&Gold Woman in Swindon where she'd been showing off. Alright, working. Dinner was nicoise salad with a liberal trail of anchovies. R&G woman is a caring and compassionate sort but she'd kill for anchovies. Probably with her bare hands. Nice bottle of High Tide Chardonnay. I'm a bit resistant to the New World chardonnays but the High Tide is light and aromatic, more like a Sauvignon Blanc.

A couple of the Phedred chocs. Yum. So much nicer without entrails.

Leftovers a smidge of salad stripped of its anchovies. What, the wine? Leftover?

After a quick no-leftovers sort of breakfast we were off to meet up with Cousin J who was also coming to stay for the weekend. Lunch was homemade bread (already made and in the freezer) and cheese, followed by fruit. We ate up the leftover salad.

Leftovers We didn't manage to eat all the bread and cheese and there were a couple of pickled onions to fight another day. Bread will do for toast on Sunday morning. Cheese back in fridge. Cheese rind in dog.

Dinner was my signature dish. Dead deer dinner Casserole vension marinaded in Guinness with a splash of port and some walnuts. Served with Pembrokeshire new potatoes and local Savoy cabbage, stir fried in a whisk of walnut oil and a grating of nutmeg. Ok, I know it's summer but when I offered the Visitors seasonal light produce or Dead Deer Dinner, they wanted DDD.
Pudding was locally produced ginger ice cream.

Did I mention a glass of wine? Whenever, my smashing neighbour comes to dinner, she always stumps up with a delicious bottle of red even if I'm offering her cheese on toast.

Leftovers Enough DDD to feed two people. It's in the freezer waiting for someone to share it with me. A couple of new spuds and a bit of the green stuff remain. This is not the kind of cabbage that Dave Pie & Mash would recognise. Still al dente, it'll fight back. Combined with the potatoes, it made a superior form of bubble and squeak for Monday night.

Leftover bread toasted for breakfast. Stumpy end of it now remains. Turned into breadcrumbs to make stuffing at some future date.

Once we had scraped the explosion off the walls and many other surfaces, it was almost time for lunch. We tried our best to earn it by climbing to the top of the hill and then had Sunday lunch in the pub.

Roast beef, Yorkshire pud, roast potatoes, carrots, swede, cabbage. Portions were boy-sized.

Leftovers We admitted defeat and so I whipped out a handy bag and salvaged the meat, veg and potatoes. When you have a dog, you've always got a bag secreted about your person for one reason or another. That's two Sundays on the trot that Spottie Boy has enjoyed a proper roast dinner.

If you didn't eat up all your leftovers for the week of the challenge, you were to suffer the "eat a lemon" punishment. So here's the lemon ... aha more leftovers!

Monday, June 29, 2009

The scent of summer

If you come a little closer to the screen and sniff, you'll catch the honeysuckle on the evening breeze.

Perfect, eh?

Who ya gonna call?

Someone overlooked the need to keep this potent mixture (M&S orange and raspberry juice) in the fridge. The ectoplasm got the walls, ceiling, carpet, curtains, duvet cover, sheet, pillowcase and spare blanket. It took 45 minutes to exorcise. But if you look carefully, there's plenty left for later.

Seen in the supermarket, fun-sized version of the fizzy drink called Irn-Bru.

Best comment on it was, "Once you've emptied it, you can fill it back up yourself".
I'd be off to the doctor if I was peeing that colour.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Explaining nothing

Cousin J was fourteen when I was born. She had an older sister, elegant, witty, clever and very grown up. But J didn’t yet have that scary, sophisticated edge. She had plaits instead. I loved the plaits and would try to twist my crop into what I thought was plaiting. When I was six, we went on holiday and she came too. Her fingers must have been out of their sockets by the end of our holiday since I hung onto them all the time. Then she came back from college a teacher. Miss H while I turned into a repellent teenager without her grace and kindness. She developed a talent for teaching children with special needs. ESN as they were called then. Or backward, or retarded, or thick. She found the little special things that opened the doors in their lives. Caring for her own mother, she spent a huge amount of her time looking out for mine as well. A patient and loving daughter and niece. Both of our mothers are gone and we are still good friends. When I’m There, we spend ages together. I never did have plaits, but thanks to my cousin, I did inflict them on Madette.

Thirty-eight years ago, I arrived at university, wide-eyed and innocent. Dumb and clueless, if you like. My parents dropped me off and I stood at the entrance to the Hall and wondered what to do with my evening. Standing there, suddenly feeling not very grown-up, I looked briefly into my future and saw the next three years as lonely, friendless and very studious. Bugger that, I thought. I had met a girl briefly at an open day and discovered that we were going to be on the same floor. Remembering that she was petite and blonde, I set off to find her. There were only a thousand other freshers so needle and haystack comes to mind. Remarkably, I found her. We had a fabulous three years and stayed close friends after we each married but when Madette was born, we drifted apart and suddenly we hadn’t seen each other for half a dozen years and she was in Egypt with a little girl. We descended into Christmas card exchanges with a one year lag between our news. She rang me up one evening but I was in the middle of Madette and Junior Mad bedtime and didn’t ring back. Her Christmas letter told me that her father had died. She had worshipped her Poppa. I wrote but she didn’t write back. Serves me right for not calling her. In 2000, she sent me a Christmas card with a photograph of her daughter, then eleven. Looking at the picture, I realised I had never seen that child. Heart in my mouth, I picked up the phone and called her. “Hi, it’s Mad. Don’t hang up.” She didn’t. We haven’t.

In 1974, I started work in London. In those far-off days, you could live in a private hostel when you started work while you made some friends and found a place to live. If you were under twenty-one, you could have a bed in a dormitory and if you were over twenty-five, you had to have a single room. Falling in the gap, I was given a shared room with a girl I had never met before. After initial awkwardness on the first evening, we started to chat. I think we dropped off to sleep at about three am. I’m a proud god-mother to her son. She and her husband were the only non-family visitors to see Madette in the Special Care Baby Unit. In 1987 we were flooded out. While her husband baled, she took the children and gave them beds. Calm, gentle and re-assuring, she’s given me all the support I needed without asking questions. Thirty-five years on, we live five minutes apart. The nicest Sundays are spent with her and the family, dog-walking.

Spring 1983, was lovely. Junior Mad was due in September and Madette was a delicious little savage. One weekend, I watched two remarkably good-looking young guys moving into the house four doors away. Shame, I thought. Two fabulous looking blokes. What a waste. They toiled all weekend. At the end of the Sunday, a vast pregnant lady billowed up the path. She was married to the older of the two guys. The other one was his brother. The next day, I knocked on the door and introduced myself, Madette and the Junior Mad bump. Our sons were born a few months apart. She is tougher than almost anyone I know and gives her time and love without reserve. Whether it’s Childline, or the growing menagerie of rescue creatures, she’s always there. When you’re with her, you can’t help smiling. Seeing in the New Year is always outrageous. Somehow, while faintly plastered, I agreed to join her on one of her “things to do before you’re fifty”. A tattoo. A bloody tattoo! Mind, we haven’t done it yet … Life’s not fair, is it? She’s a widow.

When Junior Mad was a baby, I went to my one and only National Childbirth Trust coffee morning. It was full of Yummy Mummies with their delightful Laura Ashley and Osh Kosh dressed tots. And then the Stepford Wives chatter started: what did our husbands do? I sat there feeling my teeth dissolving with the acid reply that was bursting to spew out of my mouth. I met the eye of another mother. Red-and-gold-woman is a clever clogs of the highest order and is blessed with the kind of intellect that attracts rather than repels. She is an encyclopedia of interesting stuff, radiating energy and enthusiasm. A wonderful, generous hostess, she also brings a lovely level of chaos into the lives of her friends. She conned us into travelling to Eurodisney on a coach trip together shortly after it opened. Her husband had declared that he would not go. So she persuaded him that it would be a great hoot for the two families. Reluctantly, he caved in. The travel company was about to go bust, the drivers had never left the UK before, the bus (luxury charabanc, huh!) likewise and we had to have a whip round to get enough petrol for the return journey. We loved every minute of it. R&GW sat with me at my mother’s bedside before she died, understanding the terrible course of my mother’s last days. And next weekend, she will be visiting me There and we’ll walk, and read, and visit beautiful gardens. And enjoy a small glass of wine.

In 1990, we had a nanny who was stealing. I sacked the thieving trollop and we had a lovely temp for a month while I found a new permanent nanny. Just as the new nanny was about to start work, something came up in her personal life and we were back in the soup again. Our temp came back for a week but by now we were desperate. Providing she didn’t actually have a criminal record, we’d have taken anyone. The agency came up with someone who, they implied, was a bit out of our league. She had worked as a rather posh nanny but now that she was married, she didn’t want a live-in post and it was hard to find a role for her rather superior skill-set. Gulp. This remarkable, Juno-like creature arrived. She towered over me. But then everyone does. A no-nonsense, officer's lady. She scared the crap out of my husband and most of my neighbours. Madette and Junior Mad adored her. Like Junior Mad, she’s dyslexic and her formidable talents have been channelled into beautiful crafts and cookery. At Christmas, she asked if I would like a gingerbread house. I duly handed over some wonga and came home to find that she and the children had made this beautiful house, dripping with snowy icing. When I came home the next day, it had gone. She just knew that I would have wanted to give it to the local Children’s Centre. However, if I handed over the same amount of wonga, she’d make another one. Ever stupid, I handed over a fresh lump of cash and, the next day, there was another one sitting on the dresser. You just know where this is going, don’t you? When I came home from work the following day, she’d handed that one over to another charity. My revenge is that I am god-mother to her daughter. You wait, Juno.

I always felt that the great high privilege, relief and comfort of friendship, was that one had to explain nothing.
Katherine Masefield

Monday, June 22, 2009

A feast in the cupboard

This post started as a comment on "Not Waving" but by the time it had turned into three paragraphs, I realised I should clutter up my own blog with my rant on food wastage and the tyranny of the "best before" tag. Before I get in my stride, let's be clear that I'm not advocating eating anything that has gone off or is so old that its nutritional value has disappeared completely. But really ...

Home Mum of Two informs us that 6.7 million tonnes of food are thrown out every year and she is passing on a "food wastage tag", where the tagee has to agree to use up all left overs for a week, or suffer the "eat a lemon" punishment.

Well I know where quite a bit of the 6.7 million tonnes has ended up.

Last week, one of my neighbours had their bin bag ransacked by the local foxes, cats and magpies. When I took Spot out for his morning walk I had to haul him away from all the delights strewn over the road. While it's not my normal habit to inspect my neighbours bins (honestly), I was aghast to see how much food had just been thrown away. No wonder the wildlife had found it such a feast. What I saw were their leavings. Meat, cheese, bread, yoghurt, fruit. Lord knows what was there before. Foie gras, presumably.

When I mentioned this to friends, they commented that they had thrown out a cheese because it was out of date. For a start, I can't imagine having food around that I forgot about till it had gone off. And if it was getting near to the limit, it would be put to some good use. Cheese would be grated up and frozen ready to stick on some future Mad special.

"Best before date". Gah. When I had to clear out my mother's house, we found some interesting archaeological finds in the larder. The furry dates. The Nescafe granules that had turned into a small tar-like lump. Madette and Junior Mad were helping and they kept reading the "best before" and out-bidding each other on how old things were. This was 2001 and we found many things that were supposed to have been out of date in the mid 1990s. The prize was won by Junior Mad who had found something that was out of date before he was born. That would be 1983.

But, of course, there were loads of things that had no best before date at all. They even pre-dated "best before". They would have all been out if we hadn't applied some common sense into what we were doing. Honestly, bi-carb (NaHCO3) doesn't really need a best before.

I grew up in a simple working-class home where there was very little cash for luxuries. My maternal grandmother had been widowed with five children to feed so my mother grew up knowing how to stretch the meat and to create yet another meal from the left-overs, combined with a few more vegetables and a pie-crust. My father liked simple plain food and we ate seasonal food and homegrown vegetables. Left-overs were tomorrow's meal.

This was not a perfect world. I had never seen a pepper until I left home. Sometimes food was bland since neither of my parents would have knowingly eaten garlic or much in the way of other seasoning. The only herbs I ever encountered were parsley and thyme. Foreign food was exactly that: foreign. But there was no waste food.

I still remember being sent outside in the middle of the winter to eat my dinner (what we called the meal eaten in the middle of the day). The rule was that if you put food on your plate, you had to eat it up. On this occasion, I didn't eat it up. Then I compounded my error by alleging it was yuck. It possibly was yuck since I recollect that it was a dark green and part of the cabbage family. My mother had cooked it into submission. But out I went and had to stay there until I had finished it.

Socially and professionally, I have been privileged to travel to some of the most amazing places on the planet and eat in wonderful restaurants. From a modest home, I learnt to enjoy the good life but the lessons of the hearth tend to stick. A few years ago, I found myself needing to watch the pennies very, very carefully. As long as I was careful, everything would be ok but I couldn't afford to let anything slip. I set myself a frugal housekeeping budget and planned meals to fit the budget. All the left-over habits all came back. And I've never let them go again.

Having a dog helps ... Spottie Boy and I visited Madette yesterday. Lunch in a smashing pub looking out over the Cam. A lovely young couple sitting opposite failed to clear their plates and asked if he would like the roast beef. And the veggies too!

Between the compost, the left-overs and the wormery, there's nothing to put in the kitchen macerator. It sits there with its evil jaws hanging open, starved.

Yes, I'd be cheating if I took on the challenge too. If you feel inspired to take it on, then I can offer a slightly wrinkled lemon to encourage you to stick with it.

Monday, June 15, 2009


I have just been reading one of my favourite blogs and I had a small, insignificant thought about the kind, gentle and supportive community of bloggers that I have stumbled upon in the last couple of years of blogging.

Occasionally, I read tales of spiteful attacks in the social networking world and this is such a contrast to the bloggers that I read. Some are angry and deeply pissed off with the world and their own situation. Some blog to tell the tale of their daily routine with a wry, sideways glance. Some blog to blog.

Alrightit is twenty-nine years old and has blogged her way through breast cancer. She is so entitled to be pissed off. I occasionally feel brave enough to post a comment but really, what can I say to her? I'm old enough to be her mother and I've still got a complete pair? Why didn't the Bullshit pick on someone its own age?

Not waving is blogging her life in France with family highs and lows. Her highs are delightful vignettes of family life and the joys of her expat life. Her lows are heart-achingly familiar to many of her readers ... women of a certain age, mainly. I am so struck by the honesty of her posts and the compassionate practicality of her readers. I try hard to be one of the latter but feel distant and useless, like someone standing on the far shore.

Henry the Leaphound is blogged by a lovely emanuensis called Catherine. I have been reading tales of Henry and his housemates for ages. He leads a busy non-cyber life and so I'm always eager to read a new Henry post. If you've never seen a dog on a trampoline, you should drop by Henry's place. They live hundreds of miles away but I feel like I've just popped in for a cup of tea.

@Eloh blogs with such a powerful voice that I hear her reading her posts aloud in my head. She's had a much more exciting life than most of us; have a look if you don't believe me. Her mother died recently from Alzheimers disease and the blogs are raw and painful. Should be mandatory reading for anyone with a family member, friend, lover or even ourselves who will live through this. That would be all of us then.

Sixty-five roses blogs through cystic fibrosis. Her blog catalogues the drugs and treatments she has just to plod from one day to another while trying to do all the normal teenage stuff. Yup, sometimes she gets miserable and moany and has a blogging snarl at some of her peers at school. But she's seventeen. She's allowed to be miserable and moany. In fact, it's probably mandatory. Well, it was in 1969. And her cf-supporters post practical comments on how to live with the disease. If you drop by, you'll see a translucently beautiful girl who has just started to run to keep herself well.

Dagenham Dave blogs as an Englishman in the US. His blogs are like sitcoms. Like the very best sitcoms, they have the occasional touch of pathos. The story of the false teeth made me howl with laughter and the death of the Colonel made me weep. If you drop in for a read take a handerkerchief since you'll need it for either the laughter or tears.

And there are all the others: Some Mothers blogs her life with two young sons against a hinterland of divorce, Fat and Frumpy blogs beautiful, elliptical prose, Reasons blogs cheerfully despite obvious reasons not to be, Valleys Mam blogs bring me closer to home, with all its faults, still home.

And, and, and ... all the wonderful, insightful, tender and funny blogs. They're all there on the right. Go and waste a bit of time. You'll have a smile on your face at the end of it.

Monday, June 8, 2009

A love letter

6th August 1950

Dear Eluned
I do hope you arrived safely and without trouble. I was so sorry to see you going by yourself. My life has been terrible without you. If I had not seen you on Friday I don't know how I would be feeling today. I will stick it this time, but never again, darling.
My train will leave Maesycwmmer at 11:43 arriving at Tal-y-Bont at 1:28 on Tuesday.
I will try now to make the remainder of my letter interesting to you. At 8:45 pm on Saturday, I called for your mother, Mair and Irene [sisters].
9:00 pm we arrived in Caerphilly. I parked the car and walked around the Eisteddfod grounds. We also visited the Pavillion and at 9:30 we returned to the car and drove slowly through Caerphilly up to the mountain top.
NOW, at 10:00 pm, coming back down the mountain, I was stopped by MY mother, her sister and Mrs Meade. So I had the job of introducing the in-laws. After getting over this shock, I continued on my way home with your people. I had now promised to return after taking your people home; so I was back in Caerphilly at 10:45 picking up my own crowd. This, I think, is the end of Act One.
When I got near the Royal Oak, I was stopped by a police officer who was holding two men, one on each arm and standing near a Vauxhall 14 hp saloon. He asked me to go to the police station for help. So mother and the rest had to get out for Sgt Davies and another to return with me to the scene of the trouble. Upon arrival, we found that the driver of the car was drunk, so I had to drive the car up to the police station. It was half past one when I got to bed. I think that I may get a few shillings for my trouble when the case comes off.
That is the end of Act Two.
Well darling, I have not much more to tell you except that Dad has won the first prize in the Arts & Crafts Section at the Eisteddfod and he has to attend on Monday to receive his prize so we will not be going to Aberystwyth and, to tell you the truth, I am not sorry.
I have nothing more to add darling except that I love you. Give a little bit of it to Mr and Mrs Thomas [where she was living] if you like, but for my part, it is all for you.
So goodbye for now dear. Hurry up Tuesday.
Your future husband
Eric xxxxxxx

After she had told him to push off and mind his own business, I know nothing of the progress of their courtship. But evidently, he wasn't put off by her brusque manner and she succumbed to his wooing. How could you not love someone who clearly loves you so much? At the end of July 1950, he proposed. She didn't want an engagement ring and persuaded him to save the money since she was set on having a Welsh gold wedding ring.

Despite having grown up in the same village, their parents had never been introduced so my father was horrified to find that he was forced to do the honours on his own.

She was working away from home and they saw each other every few weeks travelling on the remarkable pre-Beeching railway system. In between, they sent each other many, many letters. When he died, I found the collection of letters in a tin trunk. She could not bear to keep them and they all went. Except, a few years ago, clearing out a cupboard, I found an envelope tucked under a drawer liner at the back. In the envelope was this letter. It is the only one left.

The ring is closed. The rolling dice we cast
So long ago still roll but not so fast.
The colours fade that we nailed to the mast.
We lose the future but we own the past.
We own the past?
From our first kiss, a lifetime to the last.

They married in July 1951. I still wear the ring.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

An essay on suffrage

One day a florist goes to a barber for a haircut. After the cut he
asked about his bill and the barber replies, cannot accept money from
you. I'm doing community service this week.' The florist was pleased
and left the shop.

When the barber goes to open his shop the next morning there is a '
thank you' card and a dozen roses waiting for him at his door.

Later, a policeman comes in for a haircut, and when he tries to pay his bill,
the barber again replies, 'I cannot accept money from you. I'm doing
community service this week.' The policeman is happy and leaves the shop.

The next morning when the barber goes to open up there is a 'thank you'
card and a dozen donuts waiting for him at his door.

Later that day, a professor comes in for a haircut, and when he
tries to pay his bill, the barber again replies, 'I cannot accept money
from you; I'm doing community service this week.' The professor is very
happy and leaves the shop.

The next morning when the barber opens his shop, there is a 'thank you'
card and a dozen different books, such as 'How to Improve Your Business'
and 'Becoming More Successful.'

Then, a Member of Parliament comes in for a haircut and when he goes to
pay his bill the barber again replies, 'I cannot accept money from you.
I'm doing community service this week.' The Member of Parliament is
very happy and leaves the shop.

The next morning when the barber goes to open up, there are a dozen
Members of Parliament lined up waiting for a free haircut.

And that, my friends, illustrates the fundamental difference between the
citizens of our country and the Members of Parliament.

My great aunt, Jess, was a suffragette. A member of the Women's Social and Political Union, she protested, was arrested, force fed, beaten and humiliated. So that women could vote. Even for the people who need to have their moats cleaned, can't remember that they've paid off their mortgages or even where they live. I'm enormously proud of Jess.

Tomorrow we have elections in the UK. Parish, county and European.

I have voted in every election since I turned eighteen. I'll be voting tomorrow. Don't let the sleaze disenfranchise us.