Thursday, 20 December 2007

More nonsense from work!

People have been hitting the bottle at work I think. This email was forwarded to me but was originally sent to all university staff. The University has to submit the results of five years of its best research to the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). If the University is judged to do well then it will get enough money to continue next year and if it doesn't then departments will close and jobs will be lost! Quite important then..and you would think the transporting of all this information would have been carefully planned down to last detail. Take a look at this! (The opening comment is from my colleague)

Christ! What an opportunity! Call Ruth Kelly immediately!!!!

Dr. Melvin Fracas
Senior Lecturer In Psychology ______________________________________________
From: Melthick Julie Sent: 20 December 2007 10:09 To: uni info
Subject: Wanted - person with van to drive to Bristol on 16th Jan

Does anyone have (or know anyone who has) a transit van or equivalent and would be prepared to drive it down to Bristol and back on Wednesday 16th January? We need to transport the University's boxes of RAE evidence down to the RAE Depot that day and need someone with a van who could help us.
If you can help please reply to this email or phone me on xxxx
Thanks, Julie

Julie Melthick Academic Research Officer Registry

I replied saying that it would depend how much they were willing to pay as I knew someone (ie. me in Ian's van on a days annual leave) but it wouldn't be for free! I have not heard back!

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

The Spirit of Christmas

I guess some people don't have much of it! This was an email sent yesterday from the Head of School! Note the pleasant Christmas greetings!

From: Prune Gillian
Sent: 18 December 2007 15:13
To: h health professions staff
Subject: RE: Christmas closure

To add to the information given by Jane, to the best of my knowledge, the University is open until 4.00pm on Friday 21st December. I gather some people were saying that they would stop work at mid day on Friday because this is what we normally do on the last day before Christmas. This is incorrect and instead of asking you to work until lunch time on Monday 24th, the University is giving you the whole of Christmas Eve off, but it is not giving you half of Friday as well. If you want to take Friday pm as annual leave, please feel free to do so, but ensure this is recorded.


Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Banana llama cake

It was my birthday last Friday so I made some cakes for work and tried to make them look like llamas! The end result was quirky and a bit odd and next time I will do better but they were fun to make. Unfortunately I didn't get a picture! The cake was a banana cake so I called it a banana-llama cake! (I laughed!)

Llama walking

I had another go at llama walking last weekend. Due to the foot and mouth outbreak earlier in the year all llama walking (and the movement of most other animals) was suspended over the summer in the South of England. This came at the busiest time of year and has caused real hardship amongst the community. (The owner of the company told us he had been forced to go back to full time work for a while and was hating it!) The walking finally resumed at the beginning of November so I combined some market research with catching up with a friend and we went on a Sunday morning trek followed by a pub lunch. It turned out to be just the two of us, two llamas (Pandu and Mungo) and the owner. It was very pleasant. The llamas were good company and seemed to enjoy the chance to get out. They took every opportunity to eat as much bracken, nettles, trees etc as they could, rolled over in the sand a few times, scratched their bellies on the heather and surveyed the landscape from above (see picture).

I heard a llama hum for the first time (a sort of gentle guttural sound almost like a purr) and I saw a llama kick a dog that got too close (a remarkably quick move for such a large animal). I found out more things about llamas and felt quite comfortable with such awkward looking but elegant and dignified creatures. I learnt that they form close bonds with each other to the extent that if their best friend in the herd dies they can just give up, sit down and never get up again, dying of a broken heart. This had happened to two of the llamas from the herd we were with. One had collapsed and died of a heart attack and his best friend had just given up. I also found out that they are susceptible to bovine TB and two if the biggest breeders in the UK have lost most of their herds.

Ian and I are looking into the costs of importing some llamas from Peru (on the grounds that the cost of transporting them may be not much more than buying them in France). The problem in France is that the national herd is quite small and many of the llamas are related to each in some way! We reckon if we got a genetically different stud male he may pay his way quite quickly!

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Lovely's Christmas letter

Thanks so much for being interested enough to get this far! This new method of greeting people at Christmas will certainly sort out those of you who have enjoyed reading my letters from those of you who think 'oh God, another one of those boring Christmas notes!' In an attempt to save on postage and the environmental effects of posting wads of paper all over the world I have tried to summarise my news and publish it on-line so that only those who are really interested have to read it! As you can see if you look at the rest of the blog, this year I have kept a kind of on-line diary. However, I decided to spare you the pain of reading through the whole lot and write a summary here! If you should feel inclined to venture further into the blog at a later date don't be concerned by the characters with the strange names. I have not got a new partner, neighbours, friends and family but have loosely disguised them in case the tax department is after them!

So.. this year has seen several events and decisions made but at the end of it I am still in the same job and living in the same house! My health has fortunately continued to be good and I am now really pretty much back to normal. In April we went to Gran Canaria for a week to do some cycling. The weather was exceptionally hot but we managed to cycle most days. That's me in the picture and the long sleeves are not because it was cold but because it was so hot you needed protection from the sun! I felt like I was really back to my 'old self' after 6 days of cycling up and downhill with no ill effects other than the need to go to bed at 9.00 every night!.

Ian (sic) bought a flat last Christmas and we have spent the best part of the beginning of the year decorating as well as trying to get things sorted in my place. The pattern for the year has meant alternate weekends in London and here, which has been okay but perhaps not a long term option if we want to stay sane! Ian also had to make a decision about the land that he owns in France as the planning permission for the house runs out at the end of December and it would never be granted again. He went over at Easter to review the situation and we both did some thinking and basically decided to have a go at it! Consequently we spent two weeks in August looking for a builder and trying to get things started with the house. It was quite a hard two weeks but ultimately proved successful as the builder started last week and has marked out the house and erected a sign. He tells us that the foundations, walls and roof will be finished by next summer. It is all pretty exiting but quite scary if you think too much about it!

As the land is agricultural we must run a legitimate 'farming' business from it and after a few thoughts I decided that I would really like to breed llamas! Strange I know, and when people ask me how I came to decide on that I honestly can't remember as now 9 months later I have read and researched as much as I can, come face to face with several llamas and met several llama owners and breeders and now I can't imagine a time when I didn't want to have them! The photo is of Ian with a llama at Ashdown Forest LLama Park. So, the date to move to France is probably at least 2 years away, but that will go fast! In order to prepare I have also started French classes again and now when we buy things for our respective homes we say 'is this just temporary or is it something we will take to France!

Although my health has been good the same cannot be said for the rest of the family! My sister-in-law's mother died early in the year which was pretty sad for all concerned as she was quite a lively and positive woman and later in year my sister-in-law was seriously ill with acute appendicitis while on holiday in France. Fortunately she is okay now. My mother has also not been too well this year. It seems in the end that most of her problems were due to an under-active thyroid gland causing her get depressed, slow, to have painful joints and aches and to loose most of her independence. It took a while for it to be diagnosed and she ended up in hospital for two weeks; which just happened to co-incide with the weekend that we were packing up her house and helping her to move to a new flat in Windsor. All rather difficult and stressful for all of us but fortunately she is now recovering and is definitely settled into her new home and I think quite glad she made the move. She continues to improve, albeit it slowly and the the move to a new place where there are people around to stimulate her and to keep an eye on her has really been the best decision she could have made, even though it was very stressful at the time for all concerned.
Work is much the same. It was interesting to make a decision to plan to change careers and leave something that has pretty much been most of my life for 35 years now, but I really think the time is right to try another path. I like aspects of my work even now but it would be so nice to think that there are other things that I can do with my life before I get too old! Making the decision to look to move on has been liberating in some ways as it has enabled me to focus on the things at work that I really enjoy and not the things that are supposed to be important and that has been a good lesson.

So, at the end of the year I am looking forward to a rest! We have various family obligations at Christmas and then will just use the time to get things done at home and maybe go out on the bikes if the weather permits. Next year we will go over to France a few times to keep an eye on the building and probably will need to make some plans over the summer with regard to the next stage. This bit is really the exiting bit as we are doing lots of thinking and planning but haven't actually had to make too many changes! I'm sure it will get harder but we will take each stage at a time and see where we get!

So, here's wishing you all the best for Christmas and hoping that 2008 is good for you!
Thank you again for reading this far!
Best wishes
Lovely (sic)

Thursday, 8 November 2007

French Classes 2

I managed to persuade the tutors that I can cope with intermediate French and they allowed me to stay, (although my performance in the lesson last week was less than brilliant!) However, when we in France I was able to join in some conversations at the basic level, understood the gist of what was being said (except when Ian was talking about building things) and was able to explain in French to my potential neighbours what I did for a living; something we had practiced in class the week before. Learning a language is a hard process however as this week in the class I felt like I was a beginner again! I think you have to accept that when trying to master anything new you have to deal with the plateaus and the negative days and not let them get you down too much!

Le Terrain

We paid a quick visit to the land in France at the weekend! Ian needed to meet with the builder and agree the contract and we wanted to make sure that all the necessary procedures with regard to starting the building work had been finalised. It was also good to go over and begin to get a feel for the seasons over there. It was quite cold; below freezing at night and damp in the morning although on most days by early afternoon the sun was out. The fields and the vines were a wonderful shade of gold. On Saturday we went over to the land in the morning. The mist was quite thick and we couldn't see the other side of the field so we guessed the position of the house a bit. The builder joined us and we took a tape measure and marked out the four corners of the house. I was a bit surprised as it seemed really small when you look at the outline (not that I ever thought it was big!). The builder reassured me that it was better that it was small as there would be less cleaning! We then went back to the builders house and discussed various building technicalities (most of which I didn't follow). The rest of the weekend was spent agreeing the fine details, talking with the neighbours, keeping people informed of what was going on and generally trying to reassure people about any disturbances or upheaval. We achieved a lot; the contract is signed, the builder is planning to start digging in two weeks and hopefully by next summer we will have walls and a roof!

When the mist had cleared I stood in the outline of the house, roughly where the bedroom window will be and looked at the view. I definitely think that waking up to that view will be a good start to the day!

Unfortunately I didn't take a picture on this visit, but the one above was taken in summer from what will be the top of the drive way. The house is about 10 metres away.

Wednesday, 31 October 2007


Last week my doorbell rang at 9.00 and Ray, my neighbour was standing there. Ray lives two doors away with his elderly mother. Their house has been on the market and recently the sign was changed from 'for sale' to 'sold' so I assumed they would be leaving soon. I have occasionally spoken with Ray's mother who told me that she had been caring for her brother in Romford and he had died and left her his house so she was going to live there. I haven't really said more than a passing word to Ray as mostly he is rather drunk (although harmless..I see him sometimes asleep on the lawn, unable to co-ordinate the front door key to let himself in!). Ian and I speculated that when the house was sold Ray would probably drink all the money away. Well, last week Ray asked me if I would come and have a drink with him as he was moving out the following day. I felt a bit sorry for him as I don't think he talks to many people and so I said yes. When I got to Ray's house the only thing in it was a TV, an empty can of Stella and a bottle of Russian vodka! I agreed to the vodka and he found some coke and I determined that the conversation (and the drink) would not take long! He told me that he was going to buy some land in Bulgaria (although didn't seem to know how or when or what he would do with it) although he couldn't see much need to learn Bulgarian as 'English is the language'. I drank the vodka quite quickly, wished him well, made my excuses and left! Fortunately he was too drunk to get out of the chair quickly enough to get me the second drink he promised! He said he had lived there 27 years but didn't really know anyone else to talk to which I thought was quite sad. Mind you, I notice that a week later he is still there and there is no sign yet of him moving out!

Ian's bowel's 2

Ian had his colonoscopy yesterday. It went pretty well. He was welcomed to the hospital and shown his room, which was like a cross between a 'Travelodge' and a hospital. All the staff were very polite and friendly. He saw a nurse straight away who filled out forms, did a few tests and prepared him for the procedure; he saw the consultant briefly and then he was wheeled down to theatre area. He was gone for an hour or so and while I waited the nurse bought me a cup of tea. While he was gone the nurse set up the room for his return with a monitor and an oxygen cylinder and made his outpatients appointment for him. He was asleep for about an hour after they brought him back but after that he woke slowly and had a drink and a cup of tea and a sandwich (the food was like the food you would get in an average hotel and served by someone with a badge on that said 'waitress'). The nurse asked me if he needed a certificate for work, checked up on him regularly and once he was awake and had been to the toilet removed his cannula and pronounced him fit to leave. The consultant came in and said that his bowel looked perfectly normal but had taken several biopsies to ensure that there was nothing there that couldn't be seen by the naked eye and after that we left. Ian was a bit unsteady and tired but basically well and we were home by 9.30. The whole thing had taken 6 hours from start to finish.

There were several things that struck me as a contrast to my recent experiences with the NHS. Firstly the whole procedure was very efficient from start to finish, the staff were all pleasant, friendly and efficient (even though they were busy) , the food was something that you wanted to eat and people were considerate enough to get me a cup of tea while I sat there! All of these things made a big difference to our experience and I'm sure if you were unwell would make you feel like you could relax and get better and not have to spend your energy trying to fight the system and to get out as soon as possible My only concern was how on earth they managed to keep the carpets clean and free from MRSA!

What a wonderful world

I always listen to the radio when I am by myself in the car and often sing along as I know no one can hear me! Today, while I was driving to Brighton they played 'What a wonderful world' by Louis Armstrong. The song always cheers me up, not least because it was one of my father's favourite songs. He always liked songs with 'a good tune' and also liked Louis Armstrong, who he remembered as 'old Satchmo'. I specifically remember him saying how much he liked it, especially the words, which I think summed up how he felt about life at the time. I was still at primary school (in fact I have just looked it up and it was released in 1968 so I would have been 10 years old) and my father would have been around 60 years old. Louis Armstrong would have been about 67 so I suppose my father grew up with his music. I very much remember getting the sense that for both of them the song was a celebration of life and all that is positive about it. I also remember that at the time they played it in our school assembly and we were told that although it was a popular song it was also like a hymn.

Over the last few years particularly I have been quite surprised at my ability to see a 'half full glass' rather than one that is half empty and I think I have been very blessed to have a largely positive view of life. When I heard the song today it reminded me of where some of that positivism might have come from.

I looked up the words. They are really quite simple and brief and the whole recording is only 2 minutes 19 seconds. It was one of the last last things Louis Armstrong recorded as he died suddenly in 1971 of a heart attack. My father died in a similar fashion 14 years later.

Lyrics to WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD written by George Weiss and Bob Thiele and recorded by Louis Armstrong.

I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world

I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world

The colours of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shakin' hands, sayin' "How do you do?"
They're really saying "I love you"

I hear babies cryin', I watch them grow
They'll learn much more than I'll ever know
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world
Yes, I think to myself, what a wonderful world
Oh yeah

Monday, 22 October 2007

Mother's knees on the mend?

My mother seems to be improving very slowly. Her confusion and memory are a lot better and now when I speak to her on the phone she seems to be almost like her old self. Her feet are a little less puffy and her hands a bit better although her knees are about the same. She manages her own cooking, washing up, laundry, can mostly manage her own affairs and can get to the shops to buy a paper. My sister does her weekly shopping and cleaning but apart from that she is pretty much independent in her new flat. She still misses the fact that she can't go far on her own, although she does manage to get to the doctors, to get to the post office and we are working on her getting out to the hairdressers. It seems that most of her symptoms were due to an under-active thyroid and the severity made it difficult to diagnose. Her thyroid levels have only been in the normal range for about 4 weeks so we are hoping that in a few months some of her other symptoms will eventually ease. More importantly she has adapted to her move quite well and told me the other day that she really loved it there. The added stimulation of having company, the extra confidence of knowing that there are people around should she need them and the fact that there are things going on around her have all seemed to help. Sixteen of them are going out for dinner on New Years Eve. They have managed to negotiate a very good deal for themselves at one of the trendiest restaurants in Windsor that just happens to be round the corner.
It's funny but when I noticed that she was getting confused I couldn't really bring myself to be that honest with her at the time about it as I was afraid of the fact that she may have dementia. Now I know more than anyone that confusion is a typical symptom of under active thyroid and is often mistaken for dementia but when it concerns your own mother logic doesn't work!

Le maçon

We think we have found a builder for the house in France. We met four possible builders while we were over in the summer and they all promised quotes. One materialised quite quickly and bits of it were okay, but he wasn't our first choice of builder as he seemed to have his own ideas as to how things should be done and we thought we would probably have a hard time getting him to listen to us. One had been initially reluctant but after meeting Ian he had seemed quite enthusiastic. We chased him when the quote didn't materialise and he confessed that he had not done anything and as he had some health problems he didn't want to bid as he probably wouldn't have time to do the work. One hadn't responded but we decided we didn't really like him much. I can't quite put my finger on what it was that had put us off but we just got the impression that he was more interested in hunting with his friends that helping us build the house. Also when we stopped in at his house to drop off the plans he had a rather nice looking dog that he proceeded to shout at and hit. I just don't feel I want to trust the building of my home to a man who hits dogs as I can't imagine that he would be able to create a nice happy feeling in the building. After some reminders the final quote came in from Monsieur Soulier. We had both got a good feeling about him when we met. He seemed reasonable, quiet, polite and seemed to know what he was doing. The quote was not too excessive and so we hope to meet him soon and agree to start the work. I think what really convinced us was that he was a competitive racing cyclist in his youth. Funny how in the end business decisions are often little to do with business!

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Ian's bowels

The story of our collective ill health continues. Ian has had a pain in his stomach for about a year. It usually makes him feel quite sick and sometimes it has been quite bad and he has taken himself to the doctor, but then it goes off and he forgets about it. Two doctors now have told him that they thought he may have appendicitis and, after hearing of my sister-in-law's emergency in France and a particularly painful episode the other week he got himself referred to a specialist. He has private health insurance so he was seen quite quickly and had a few rather unpleasant and intimate examinations (he hated it and I guess they are not very pleasant but then as a woman you get rather used to it!). He was then sent for an ultrasound which found nothing and so he returned to see the consultant. Unfortunately the consultant could still feel a lump in his bowel and he still had some discomfort so the next stage involves a camera on a very long tube being placed in a very uncomfortable place! Ian has to first clear out his bowels with what sounds like a derivative of Harpic and then not eat for 12 hours. He will be sedated, unable to drive home and will need someone to look after him for a day or so. Needless to say he is rather worried. The consultant thinks he may have a polyp that he can remove or biopsy during the procedure but of course it is always easier to imagine the worst! We will be very glad when it is over!

Thursday, 4 October 2007

French classes

I went to my first French class last night. I thought it started at 5.30 but when I got there at 5.10 it was already underway. Furthermore the teacher didn't have my name on the list but I convinced her in French that I had registered and that these things happen all the time! I really enjoyed the class! The time went quickly and I actually felt quite exited at the prospect of my final assignment- a 10 minute presentation, in French, of a subject of my choice with questions. (Of course I have already decided that my talk will be on llamas!) When I got home I had a closer look at the course handbook and realised that in fact I had gone to the wrong class! I had gone to the intermediate class and I was signed up for the elementary! I emailed the teacher explaining my mistake but telling her how much I enjoyed the class and asking if I could transfer to it! I didn't get a reply but when I looked at the website this evening I realised that I had also emailed the wrong teacher! I then emailed the right teacher and am now awaiting to see if my request has been granted but not holding out much hope as I think they will think that I am very stupid!

Sandpit talk

We've been talking about the sandpit at work. Cleo told her husband and he said that cats sh*t in sandpits. Marie said that when she takes her six year old to the sandpit it always ends in tears when the kids fight over the bucket and spade and throw sand in each others eyes! The motto is choose your metaphor carefully!

Monday, 1 October 2007

Playing in the sandpit!

I have been thinking about the sandpit. I really think it is very inappropriately named! The stated purpose is to get researchers and others talking about research in a creative way but the hidden agenda is that it is linked to funding for research from the various research councils. Now, if you are a serious academic then your ability to secure research funding is absolutely crucial to your continued career. You will certainly not get a chance of a job in a top university unless you have been successful in getting serious money for a series of projects and you will never become a professor or dean without a string of publications in eminent and learned journals. After all, this is what keeps the universities financially solvent! Therefore, any mention of money brings out the bounty hunters in full force. So, the people applying to attend the sandpit will consist of the most competitive and ambitious researchers. Any others attending will usually be equally competitive in the voluntary sector; high powered professional advocates, often with an ultimate eye on a political post, or paid representatives of various pressure groups such as Age Concern, who are looking out for their next paid post or alternatively have a deeply personal motivation for being there. The stakes are high and the players are nervous! I would like to think that the main motivation for people to be there is that they are deeply committed to their cause or the research and truly believe that their input will impact positively on the lives of others and I would be being too cynical not to acknowledge that this does play some part. However, sadly, it is not the prime motivator! Having been to conferences and meetings where some of these high-flyers and potential high-flyers congregate I have observed the following:

1. They will always have plenty to say. Often it is rubbish and not related to the topic but they always say it enthusiastically and make sure that everyone knows their name and where they are from before they start. (One of my colleagues was such a high-flyer for a while and I can remember her saying "Lovely, when you are at one of these meetings it is important that you say something; and if you can't think of anything sensible to say stand up and say 'it's awfully hot in here, does anyone mind if I open a window?'" She later became the senior professional advisor to the Department of Health!)

2.They introduce themselves to you in a friendly manner but as soon as it is not rude to do so, ask about your research interests and publications. In their heads they are trying to work out whether there is any potential for them to get more money if they work with you and as soon as they realise there isn't they move off to the next potential target. (I think it is called networking)(They may also have another motive for continuing to talk with you- see point 5!)

3. Despite the public perception of researchers coming straight from the lab with no dress sense and unruly hair, these participants all wear Armani and go to expensive London hairdressers (if they still have hair; if it is thinning then it is shaved off in the designer skin-head look). The men usually have a left-over 80s earring in one ear (by now just a discreet stud) and the women somehow have never managed to loose their shoulder pads!

4. They all claim to vote Labour (not so surprising really as Labour is the new Tory!)The truth is if there were a different government in power they would claim to have voted for them as well.

5. At conferences or other residential events there will be quite a few delegates that seize the opportunity created by a few nights away from the wife/children/partner/husband and have an illicit shag with someone else. There are a lot of sad and lonely people in the higher levels of academia! Maybe there are a lot of sad and lonely people everywhere but somehow the 'deed' seems more shocking in that it is carried out in this rarefied environment. Sometimes these affairs continue from conference to conference and become part of the motivation for people to attend!

So rather than a sandpit I think these events would more appropriately called a snake pit!

The sandpit

I was quite surprised today to be invited to apply for a place on a sandpit. It threw me a little as the last time I visited a sandpit I was about six and I had a bucket and spade. I looked into it further and found that in modern-day English a sandpit is a

" residential interactive workshop over 5 days involving 20-30 participants, the director and a number of independent stakeholders. An essential element of a sandpit is a highly multidisciplinary mix of participants taking part, some being active researchers and some being potential users of research outcomes, to drive lateral thinking and radical approaches to addressing particular research challenges."

Other features of a sandpit are that they

"are intensive events. For the well being of participants, the venues offer opportunities for relaxation, and the timetable includes informal networking activities as a break from the detailed technical discussions"


"Owing to the group dynamics and the continual evaluation it’s not possible to dip in and out of the process. Participants stay for the whole duration of the sandpit event"

Further reading suggests that

"Sandpits encourage the imaginations and creativity of children by providing the materials and space to build structures such as sandcastles; use toy trucks, shovels, and buckets to move the sand around; dig holes and bury things, etc. In other words, the sand provides a medium in which children can pretend to explore, construct, and destroy the world in three dimensions. This idea of being creative and experimentation is what the metaphorical uses of the word 'sandpit' or 'sandbox' were born out of."

God...!!! Things like this just confirm my increasingly held belief that I am too old, too jaded and too cynical to continue working in the public sector! I don't think I could physically or psychologically stomach even one day with a bunch of people talking in metaphor and acronym, totally up their own ar*es without any means of escape. It seems to be a cross between New Age boll*cks and and a reality TV show! It really is time to breed llamas! (And no, that is not a metaphor for some career move or life-stage or retirement but a genuine plan! See earlier posts!)

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Doggy tales

I have been a volunteer for the Cinnamon Trust on and off for the last few years. The Cinnamon Trust is a group that help people who are elderly or infirm manage their pets.

When I signed up I had dreams of walking lively collies for jolly owners who couldn't quite manage the longer walks. In reality I soon discovered that dogs like these had plenty of offers for walks and what I got was elderly disabled dogs living with elderly and mostly lonely owners. The dogs become the most important thing in their lives and negotiating the terms and conditions for the walk is a trecherous business! Never-the-less I have had some good experiences including walking a small blind dog with heart failure that sniffed its way around the block and snorted loudly when it got out of breath! The owner would pick at a yoghurt and a glass of sherry for lunch and send me out with £10 to buy some prime steak for the dog. On another occasion I walked a very lively terrier for a very elderly lady who lived around the corner. She sadly died and I was involved in re-homing the dog to new (younger) owners in Kent. Her family suddenly appeared after she died and made a lot of fuss about how they didn't want the dog so I went to the florists and ordered a big bunch of the brightest sunflowers to send to her funeral and signed the card from the dog! I haven't done much for the Trust for a while but happened to be in when they called the other day. A local lady was temporarily incapacitated and unable to walk her hearing dog, Bambi (hearing dogs are trained to alert deaf people to sounds such as the door bell and the phone, although mostly they provide company and contact with the outside world). After a visit it soon became clear that the lady was having plenty of visits and the dog was getting plenty of walks (it had even lost weight because it was getting more exercise) but assistance was needed to take the dog to its weekly agility class as the regular helper was unable to make it every week. So, I went to my first ever dog agility class, sadly without a dog of my own. However, it was good to watch! Bambi is sadly not a young as she used to be and has poor eyesight. She can just about manage a few rounds of the low course, leaving out some of the more difficult items. Bambi will soon have to retire as a hearing dog but this will be a very difficult decision for her owner to make!

Post-holiday blues

Coming back home and getting back into work has been very strange this time. It is always difficult but somehow this year the irritations have been more irritating than usual, the tiredness set in almost as soon as I got back and I seem to be very much aware of the pointlessness of some of the things that I am required to do as part of life and work. The first major annoyance at work concerned the newly identified smoking areas. Over the summer it seems that a few people in the University were given the job of identifying suitable outdoor areas where it was permissible to smoke. It seems that suitable areas are supposed to be pleasant for the smokers and those taking on this role took this to heart, with little consideration of the effect of these decisions on the non-smokers in the vicinity. The 'therapy garden' which has been carefully created by students for the benefit of all, was chosen as one such site and without any consultation an enormous sign and a tiny ash tray was erected in the middle of it! Now, we use this area as a teaching space and I have to say we all took this decision very personally. There followed a barrage of emails (excerpts below) but as yet we have not had a response, not even a 'thank you for your comments but bugger off' type! You will notice from the emails that another smoking site is 'Leaf Hospital - area of rear lawn (hospice side)! Now, I know the hospice residents are not going to notice any long term effects from the smoke but I did think it was rather cruel to encourage smoking in front of the very people who may now be regretting the day they smoked their first fag!

"From: Bridge Kevin
Sent: 13 September 2007 10:16
To: uni info
Subject:Designated smoking areas
Dear colleague

Further to recent changes to the smoking law, the university has provided a designated smoking area close to most buildings. Smokers are politely asked to use these areas with immediate effect. Smoking is no longer permitted elsewhere on the university's premises.

The location of each designated smoking area is as follows:
Hillbrow and Sports Centre - grass triangle adjacent to Gaudick, Denton and Carlisle crossroad
Trevin Towers - Rose garden at rear of building
Welkin and Bishopsbourne - Bishopsbourne barbecue lawn
Aldro - Aldro therapy garden
Robert Dodd and Greynore - H block garden
Leaf Hospital - area of rear lawn (hospice side)
Queenwood - area of Ward Hall lawn

University Centre Hastings - not possible

As you can see, it has not been possible to provide a designated smoking area near to some buildings and where this is the case, smokers are able to access the public street easily.

Thank you for your co-operation.


From: Jim Jones (Health Professions)
Sent: 14 September 2007 12:19
To: h health professions staff;
Subject: FW: Designated smoking areas
Ironic that the Aldro smoking area is the Therapy garden! Does this have to be the case?

From: Lovely
Sent: 14 September 2007 12:35
To: h health professions staff; Bridge Kevin
Subject: RE: Designated smoking areas
no... I feel quite strongly that the Therapy garden should not be a smoking area! Whilst you might be able to make a perfectly good fertilizer from cigarette butts I don't think it is fair that those studying horticulture in the therapy garden should have to pick them out of the flower beds!

From: Bridge Kevin
Sent: 14 September 2007 12:51
To: h health professions staff
Subject: RE: Designated smoking areas
Dear all

The Therapy garden is the closest place to Aldro that provides a pleasant space for socialising (as specified by the university), whilst keeping smoke away from buildings.

An ashtray has been provided for cigarette ends.


From: Jim Jones (Health Professions)
Sent: 14 September 2007 13.02
To: h health professions staff;
Subject: FW: Designated smoking areas
But surely as a teaching area there should not be smoking in it? - Is smoking allowed on sports fields which are also pleasant areas away from buildings?
Could this be reviewed?


From: Patsy Mcbride (Health Professions)
Sent: 21 September 2007 13.29
To: h health professions staff;
Subject: FW: Designated smoking areas
Dear Viviene and Kevin

Last week you informed us of the university's designated areas for smoking. On the same day, it was surprising to find an extremely conspicuous sign for the smoking area firmly in place in the 'Therapy Garden'. It would have been good to have some prior notice of this intention and an opportunity for discussion.

I would like to add to my colleagues' comments that this is an environment where students are taught and therefore not one where smoking should be sanctioned. Also on a practical level, I think it unrealistic to expect people to walk in wet weather across a lawn where there's no path, in order to use an ash tray. I believe it is far more likely that they will remain on the tarmac near the students' greenhouse.

Finally, while I would not condemn people to smoke around bins or in car parks, I see no reason why they should be encouraged into an area that has been painstakingly made into an amenity for all.

I hope there can be accommodation on this matter although I note the concrete fixing!

Best wishes



Thursday, 6 September 2007

Strange how cycling weaves itself throughout my life

I suppose that it is just because I look out for other cyclists that I notice them but they do seem to appear everywhere I go! One day in the campsite in France a camper-van appeared and an older English couple got out. They saw Ian changing the tyres on my bike and immediately offered to lend us a track pump. As we cycled off Ian commented that they must know what they were doing with regard to bikes as they had pretty decent touring bikes with them. We thought they might be in their 60s and enjoying their retirement. Later that day we chatted to them, initially about cycling in general and then about bikes, then about where they cycled, racing and then about the Tour de France...I told them that Ian and I had been Marshals at which point they told us that they had been invited as V.I.P. guests to the opening ceremony but had declined as they had been on holiday! They were invited because he had ridden the Tour de France in 1961, when there were national teams. They had both raced with all the big names of that era and were personal friends of the Boardman's, in fact their son had been one of his mechanics. Turned out they were more like 70+ than 60! On a couple of days they road their bikes as far as we did in much less time! When they were talking about the Tour de France I lamented that they must have been riding in the days when the sport was not tainted by drugs. I was soon put right on that one. "Don't you believe it! The sport was full of drugs, everyone was taking it! We (the British riders) were all given something to take if we thought that we were in with a chance of winning although none of us got anywhere near!"

We met other cyclists as well. One of the builders had a trophy on his desk and when we asked him about it he said he had been the road race champion of Aquitane when he was 25, although he had to give it up when he started his business. Ian also spoke with someone who made iron frames (for the barn) who told him that he had been the French champion in the Madison (a strange track race where cyclists race round in pairs and propel each other forward at various stages!)

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

The wolf strikes again

Lupus gets its name from the butterfly rash that typically appears over the face and people used to think looked rather wolf-like. I mentioned in an earlier post that over the summer the daughter of a colleague of Ian's was taken ill, eventually diagnosed with lupus and died very suddenly at the age of 26.

This link gives all the details better than I ever could. Ian sent it to me as he thought it might mean something to me. It certainly did and I could identify with a lot of the things they went through, especially her refusal to let anyone go with her to hospital (I certainly did that!) and the strange and insidious presentation of the disease with its sudden serious climax. I feel incredibly thankful and also a little guilty that my outcome was more positive. I think when the coin was thrown up in the air mine landed one way and hers landed the other as when I asked my consultant if I would still be here if I had waited until my appointment time before getting seen he didn't answer.

Best of times, worst of times 2

Well, my sister's life is certainly full of highs and lows at the moment. At the weekend Ian and I went to Hamburg to support her as she competed in the Triathlon World Championships. She had really worked hard to qualify to represent Great Britain in the age-group categories and was thrilled to get there (despite the fact that she had to fund herself, including buying her GB kit and race entry fee). When we arrived she was having a few pre-race jitters and we spent the day checking her bike with her, going through the course and watching her practice getting on and off the bike quickly. She had an 8.50 a.m. start the following morning and we just about got there on time to see her start her swim. We then ran over to see her get out of the water and cheered her and all the other athletes on as loudly as we could, waving the rattles that had been given out by the organisers. We then went to see her as she got off the bike and started her run and finally dashed across to the end so that we could see her as she came through the finish line. (We were both exhausted after that!) The atmosphere throughout was great. The athletes were enjoying the competition and the spectators (including us) got into the spirit of it and cheered everyone. My voice was hoarse afterwards! She came 38th out of 78 and was pleased with her performance but I think mostly she just enjoyed the experience of being there and taking part, which is exactly what I hoped for her. As Ian and I were waiting for the plane to take us home that evening I sent her a text saying that I hoped she enjoyed herself at the party that evening at that Dad would have been really proud of her representing her country and doing so well. She told my mum that it had been the best day of her life, that the cheering was great and that she felt really proud to be representing her country. As she crossed the finish line she was really touched that people came up and shook her hand. (The picture is of my sister and her friend at the end of the race)

As we were waiting by the swim start one of the competitors, a young Canadian girl, came up and told the organisers that she was really scared. The organisers calmed her down with reassuring words and we also said some encouraging things, but what I really wanted to say was that she was so lucky, to be there, to be representing her country and to be blessed with the health, fitness and abilities that she had and she should just go out and celebrate that and not worry about anything else!

French neighbours

When Ian and I were in France we got to meet our prospective neighbours! I seem to enjoy writing about my neighbours so here goes. The land that joins Ian's is owned by Herman, a sixty something Englishman who has lived in France for the last 20 years. Herman lives by himself (and his recently acquired dog) in the run down 'Moulin'. He keeps a few sheep, grows herbs and sells them at the local market and lives a fairly basic life with little money and company. The road and bridge into the Moulin were declared impassable to traffic 20 years ago and his one functioning vehicle collapsed at the strain of driving across what remains of the bridge while we were there. As we left he was contemplating an alternative exit through a 'chemin rural' (basically a bridleway) that will definitely not be passable in the rain unless you have a tractor! After his day at the market he calls into to see some of the other neighbours and enjoys a glass of wine or two before he staggers back across the field. We had met him before but on this occasion he started off by being particularly gloomy; telling us of how cold it is in winter, how hard it is to make a living and how many English people come out and then return. However, after a while he mellowed a little and we got a glimpse of his humour and more devilish side as he told us stories about the other neighbours. I think Herman is someone for whom the glass is mostly half empty. What I learnt from that is that if you are a miserable bastard in England you will probably be a miserable bastard in France. Mind you, I think that with Herman some of it is a bit of a dramatic act put on for visitors.

The house that borders the land near the road was recently bought by an English couple and we called in and introduced ourselves. Peter and Hazel run a successful entertainment business in the UK that they plan to continue with but are in the process of moving the majority of their life over to France. With them came their cat and Peter's 84 year old father Albert. When we met Albert he was a little down as he had just returned from hospital, where they had told him to stop smoking. After 60 years of nicotine he quit cold-turkey and it turned out that some of his moods and symptoms were caused by nicotine withdrawal. We met him a second time a week later and he had really perked up after getting some nicotine patches. Albert was probably the most alert out of the lot of us. He had been into cycling as a young man and told Ian and I about the bikes he used to ride (we turned up the first time on our bikes). He had worked as a master carpenter and his hands were badly arthritic (and had been for about 40 years) but it didn't stop him from doing anything! Peter and Hazel had finally decided to make a major change in their lives after Hazel's parents died and Peter had a potentially life threatening illness that had made him seriously rethink his priorities. In their business lives Peter is a record producer and one coincidence was that they had recorded many times in the studio in London that my brother has bought (and is hoping to renovate). It was strange to think that when Ian and I stayed there last New Years Eve we slept in the control room where Peter had sat and sweated many times!

Friday, 10 August 2007

Our holiday

Ian and I are off the France next week to see if we can find someone to build the house on the land and to spend some time getting to know the area where we may end up living. It's quite exiting. On the way back we are going to visit the llama breeders to see their llamas!

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Best of times, worst of times

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

This is the opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, referring to the time of the French Revolution. My sister says it is like her life has been this year and she is longing for a time when it will just be normal.

Foot and mouth

One thing that I didn't know about llamas until today was that they can get foot and mouth disease. I had read somewhere that they didn't get it but was a little confused when the papers reported that llamas were susceptible to foot and mouth and that the Surrey hills llamas were being closely monitored for signs. (We currently have a foot and mouth outbreak in cattle in Surrey, possibly linked to the local drug company and agricultural research laboratory that produce animal vaccines for foot and mouth disease). I read up on it a little more and it seems that llamas can get foot and mouth and can transmit it but are not particularly susceptible, have few symptoms and recover from it quickly. They seem to have a natural resilience to most strains of the disease. I got to thinking about how awful it must be then to raise your heard of llamas over the years (these are raised predominantly as pets or breeding stock) and then have to face the possibility of them being slaughtered on your farm, especially as they are not likely to suffer too much as a result of the disease. I don't think I would be able to bear that and I can now understand how many farmers who lost their herds in the last outbreak became depressed and suicidal. I spoke to a friend this evening who lives near the area and we decided that in the Autumn we will go on a llama trek with the Surrey llamas so I will keep my fingers crossed that they are still there!

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Aftermath of the fires

The fires on Gran Canaria encompassed all the areas and places that we cycled. It seems that they are now out but these are the pictures of the aftermath. They make sad viewing. One is of Ayagaures, one of palmitos park and one of St Bartolome de Tirajana.

View from Ayagaures

This was a picture that I downloaded from the Herald Tribune website taken of the view from Ayagaures yesterday.

Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Sequal to village day

I have just heard that the villagers of Ayagaures (see post 3rd May) have been evacuated as forest fires are destroying the whole of the area in Gran Canaria where we cycled in May. All those lovely tracks and trails and all the wildlife and plants are now smouldering away. One day we cycled up to Palmitos park. The hill to the park was amongst the steepest I have ever ridden up and even in May the temperature was 35 degrees. It is now over 45 degrees and windy and a land ranger who had just been sacked admitted to starting the fire that destroyed 65% of the park. I read that they set free a lot of the rare birds before the fire hit. Above is a picture of the park in May.

Monday, 30 July 2007

More llamas

I found his picture on the internet. I thought he was rather cute and somehow he slipped into a lecture I was doing on ethics the other day and he is now on my office door. Ian and I are calling in to the llama breeders on our way back from the land in August to look at their llamas. We are hoping to find someone to build the house before then! I have decided that the first male llama to be born on the farm will be called Serge after Serge Lama. According to Wikipedia Serge Lama is a French singer who was born in Bordeau in 1943. His most famous song is je suis malade (I am ill). The first female llama will be called Eleanor after Eleanor of Aquitaine. We may spell it the French way Aliénor . She was one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in Europe during the High Middle Ages and was married to the Kings of France and England in turn.

Drugs 3

I have to take drugs to stay well. There is quite a rigmarole to my drug regime. In the morning I must take my steroids with food, except for on Wednesdays when I have to get up earlier and take a tablet before the others. This one is to stop the steroids from giving me osteoporosis and I must take that on an empty stomach, with a pint of water and stay upright for at least half an hour. Mid morning I need to take my immunosupressant tablets one hour before food. I also need to take them again just before I go to be (also on an empty stomach, although mostly I don't manage that!)Once a month I have to remember to get e new prescription from my GP and then collect the drugs from the pharmacy. Once every two months I have to remember to have a blood test to make sure the drugs are not doing anything too nasty to my body. Long term the drugs may make me more prone to cancer, give me thin bones and type 11 diabetes. Short term I get numb feet sometimes and an upset stomach but I am well and able to live an ordinary life. The daughter of a colleague of Ian died yesterday after a stroke caused by her lupus so my drug regime is a very small price to pay.

Drugs 2

Why do people take drugs at all? One of my neighbours (Maud) asked me the other day if I knew of any inpatient drug rehabilitation centres where her daughter Jane could go. Apparently she had a heroin problem years ago but had been clean for sometime. She then got back in contact with an ex-boyfriend who has a habit and before long was back on it again (he was encouraging her as by keeping her addicted he can get her to do whatever he wants). She doesn't really admit to having a problem but her nine year old daughter was beginning to notice what was going on at home and when Maud pried a little deeper she realised that it had become quite an addiction. Maud took the daughter in to live with her but was concerned about Jane and was trying to get her to go and get some help. I found her the names of a few places but I am not sure whether it has had any affect. I haven't seen Jane for a while but that may not be a good thing. She has already had two deep venous thrombosis (most likely from injecting into her groin) she does not have access to clean needles as she is not a registered addict and is encouraged to steal and earn money for fixes through prostitution. I would think that using condoms is the last thing she thinks about.


I can't help being a little disappointed about the drugs scandal that came to light in the later stages of the tour. I had just watched what looked like a fantastic ride by Alexandra Vinokourov, the pre-race favourite. In the earlier stages of the race he had been knocked off his bike and badly hurt but continued cycling with 55 stitches in his knees. He had struggled up the hills in the first stages in the Alps and looked all but finished but then as if by a miracle, managed to ride a fantastic time trial a day or so later and won the stage. It didn't do much for his overall chances of winning the race as he was already well behind, but seemed to restore his pride and his motivation. The first day in the Pyrenees he had seemed to be struggling again but the following day he was recovered, broke away from the main contenders (as he was no threat to them overall they let him go for a while) and won the stage again, finishing at the top of the Col de Peyresourde, an infamous haute categorie (beyond classification) Tour de France climb. I admired him at that moment for his determination, his ability to fight back, his ability to ride through the pain until a good day came and sheer bloody mindedness! I heard later that he had been sent home that night and his team withdrawn from the race because his blood test taken after the time-trial had shown that he had someone else's blood in him as well as his own! (Blood doping is the practice of illicitly boosting the number of red blood cells (RBCs) in the circulation in order to enhance athletic performance. Because they carry oxygen from the lungs to the muscles, more RBCs in the blood can improve an athlete’s aerobic capacity and stamina. You can use your own blood, collected a few weeks earlier or get it from someone else. This is more risky as it is easier to detect).

The blood taken after the mountain stage has also tested positive for blood doping and it turned out that what I had been watching was someone so determined to get his share of glory and his win that he was prepared to cheat. On the same day a Cofidis rider (maybe one of the ones pictured below) had tested positive for testosterone and his whole team were sent home (he at least had the courtesy to admit it when caught). Finally, Michael Rasmussen, someone who I have watched and admired over the years, was sent home by his team because he lied about his whereabouts in the weeks preceding the tour and so missed four drugs tests. So as well as some of the riders I feel a bit bruised and battered with disappointment by the performance of these big names. I don't know what makes such an athlete decide to risk the credibility of his whole career by doing one stupid thing. Some of them have lots of excuses (the most bizarre one from Vinokourov was that his earlier injury had resulted in his thighs getting filled with extra blood, although that doesn't explain why he had another man's blood in his veins) but mostly they are unconvincing. It was great to see one of the youngest riders, Alberto Contador, take the yellow jersey in Paris but I couldn't help wondering whether his ability to keep speeding up going up a mountain with more that a 10% gradient was just down to youth and natural talent or fueled by something else as yet undetectable. I am sorry Alberto if I have insulted you but you can't blame me for being a bit jaded.

Monday, 16 July 2007

My mother's new house

I visited my mother in her new house over the weekend. She is a little dazed and disoriented but seems to be settling in and enjoys staring out of her window at the comings and goings in the police station next door. She can't work out how to use the intercom yet but in two minutes had worked out how to use the TV remote for her new digibox!

Curse of the mountains

The Tour arrived in the Alps on Saturday. The Tour de France is really a series of races and battles within a race. There are riders that are good at riding out on their own and competing against the clock, riders that are good at giving it everything they have over the last few metres and racing for the line and riders that can ride up mountains. Very rarely do you get a rider who is good at more than one of these disciplines; and if you do they are the ones that will most likely to go on to win the yellow jersey and the race overall. So, for the first week of the race the sprinters have it pretty much to themselves as there are no hills to speak of, but it is when The Tour hits the mountains that the action begins. For the sprinters it is a case of giving 150 percent just to stay in the race. Many don't make it and retire or are eliminated and for them the race is over. For the hill climbers it is their chance to make their mark. However, the mountains are funny places. Some days you feel great and all the hours of training pay off. Your legs feel good and as you round the corners you have just a little more strength than the others and the mountain air spurs you on to the top. On other days your legs feel like lead and you can't get over the feeling of imminent death and collapse! In the Alps you could see the agony on the faces of those in trouble (on the flatter stages you can sometimes disguise your pain but the mountains do not take any prisoners). There is something about the high alps that tests your body to its limits and if there is anything there it will find it. The first symptoms of my connective tissue disease appeared the week after returning from a week skiing in Le Grand Bornand and my mothers illness was triggered in a similar fashion two years later. This year the first stage in the Alps finished in Le Grand Bornand after a 16km climb over the Col de la Columbiere. My brother was there to watch the riders as they sped past on the descent to the finish. After he had to visit my sister-in-law in hospital. The mountains had claimed another victim and she had been admitted the day before with what turned out to be appendicitis and peritonitis.

During my first trip to the Alps 18 months after my illness I cycled up the Col de la Columbiere (from the easy side). It took me two hours and I felt like I was going to collapse at several points but when I reached the top I did feel like I had gone some way to beating my own mountain curse.

Monday, 9 July 2007

The best view in the house

This couple had camped out all night on Westminster Bridge to get a good view of the riders as they passed in front of the Houses of Parliament. They got there at 8.00pm the night before and said it was a bit cold but that they had actually slept a little. I didn't get to see them afterwards to see if they had enjoyed it or got the view that they hoped for.

Le Grand Départ

Yesterday we fulfilled our duties as volunteer marshals on stage one of the Tour de France. Luckily, after weeks of rain, the sun decided to shine all day and although at 5.30 a.m. when we arrived at our meeting point, it was pretty chilly by the time the peleton passed through it had warmed up nicely. We managed to get a good spot near the start of the race on Westminster Bridge. From where I was standing I could see Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament directly in front of me and it wasn’t long before the tourists, visitors and photographers realised that this was a prime location. That said everything was very orderly and people were very well behaved. Our job was to make up the numbers (we had to wear bright day-glo orange tabards) and the only thing we really got involved in was asking people not to sit, step, and put their feet or any other part of their body into the road. (The reason being that with close to 200 riders and narrow roads they use up every bit of space going including the gutter and can easily hit anything that protrudes into their path; as happened later on in the race when a pedestrian got in the way of a British rider, knocked him off and ruined any chance he had of getting back into the sprint finish). We weren’t really needed as such but I suppose might have been if anything untoward had happened. At about 7.30 a.m. we could hear police sirens and looked up to see a convoy of British motorcycle police coming over the bridge, providing a formal ceremonial escort to their equivalent in the French Gendarme who had come over with ‘le tour’. The publicity caravan passed through rather noisily at 8.30 but at that point there weren’t many people around to see it; mostly people returning from their night out! After that various team cars and vehicles came through; almost all the passengers turned to look at Big Ben and took a photo and some drivers and motor bike riders stopped, got out of their cars and took pictures of themselves with Big Ben in the background (to cheers and applause from the gathering crowd). In the crowd we discussed the fact that the ‘carbon footprint’ of ‘le tour’ with all its associated support vehicles, publicity, team cars, buses, vans etc (the size of small town that gets up and moves everyday) was considerable! Finally, after much excitement and build up the riders came through. They weren’t actually racing at this point but gently riding (at 25miles and hour) around the sights of London. I think if the riders could have got off their bikes and taken a photo they would of and I caught this picture of two from the Cofidis team glancing over their shoulders to get a glimpse of the view. Our job was done by 11.00 and we headed off to watch the rest of the race in the sun, on the big screen in St James’s Park. Later that day Ian and I followed the route the riders took out of London, through Deptford, Woolwich, Erith and Dartford and they certainly got to see some of the very best and very worst sights although at that point I expect they were going so fast they didn't notice!

Monday, 2 July 2007

My mother's bowels

Not a very nice title I know but every bit of my mother seems to be bothering her! The good news is that she is out of hospital and staying with my sister and seems to be quite relieved that she missed out on the trauma of packing up her house. The further good news is that the tests she had did not turn up anything more sinister than an under-active thyroid and with some treatment her swollen feet are reducing and her ability to move around is getting better. This is just as well as the stay in hospital caused her to become very constipated and on her discharge she was given a very large dose of laxatives. These did not start to work until she arrived on my sister's doorstep and from that moment forth they have not stopped working! My poor sister has been running a 24 hour laundry and cleaning service and my mother has been getting lots of exercise!

My mother's house-finale

Well, we survived the ordeal of packing up my mother's house. It took the best part of three days, a skip, a house clearance man, two trips in a white van, a lot of bleach and the combined efforts of four people. In the end it wasn't that difficult as there truly was a lot of rubbish and a lot of mess and there was really no alternative but to put most of it in the bin. We did uncover a few surprises! My brother found a letter that my mother had written to a Daily Mail journalist complaining about his treatment of Ian Botham. (If you are reading this from overseas Ian Botham was a well known English cricket player in the late 1980s). My mother thought Ian Botham was great; she admired his cricket but mostly she admired his 'don't give a damn' attitude and was livid when this journalist criticised him in his weekly column. We found the letter (and his reply) amongst her papers. She concluded the letter by saying 'when I read your column I felt like landing one on you' which made us all laugh as we could never imagine her doing or saying any such thing. We also found a letter that she had written to Ian Botham congratulating him on his career and on what he had contributed to English cricket. We did comment that although it was a horrible job to clear out her house at least we weren't doing it after she had died and we could go back and share what we had found with her. My sister took a large, very old and faded picture of what we think was of her as a child to get it framed for her new house. Later in the afternoon, when all was cleared, I saw my brother pulling up the carpet in the front bedroom to show Ian the shrapnel hole in the bedroom floor. Unfortunately the carpet disintegrated as they went and they didn't find it! I left the house to its new owners without too much regret in the end as what was there was just an empty faded shell that I once thought contained all my memories.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Pond life

On a more positive note I seem to have three surviving newts in the pond. They were sunbathing under the lily leaf today! I also have a pond full of dragon fly larvae, which is not so good!

One final National Health Service moan

There was just one more thing that irritated me when I was trying to sort out my mum. The hospital wanted the full name of her GP as the person who referred her was a trainee and their computer didn't recognise him. Well, she has seen several different GPs so she didn't know which one was hers. When I called in to the practice earlier I was given a card with the contact details of her GP on it so I naturally got that out. True, it did have the name and address of the practice and a phone number, but there were no names for the doctors on it. One side was full of advertisements for a Massage therapist (no details of qualifications given, just a name and phone number- could have been any kind of massage) Asian Funeral Care Ltd (not very reassuring), a Shiatsu and Counselling Service (although it didn't say what sort of counselling) and an advert for the people who published the card. Now, I do understand that in parts of the National Health Service it is necessary to generate income, but for me this kind of advertising is a bridge too far. It does state that the practice in no way endorses the things it advertises but I don't think that would stop people thinking that if it is on a card that they got from the doctors then it must be okay. Additionally, the very information that is important is missing. I wonder who advises them on the ethical implications of their actions.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Hospital parking moans 2

I took my mum to her clinic appointment yesterday (she can only walk a few steps so public transport is out of the question). It cost £2.00 for two hours and as her appointment went on longer than I thought I had to put another £2.00 in, costing £4.00 in total. Mind you, I was really lucky to get a parking spot at all as it was very busy. She was later admitted to another hospital 8 miles away. I drove her there thus saving the NHS the cost of an ambulance. I was happy to do that for her but what I was not so happy about was being charged another £4.00 to park in the same NHS Trust. I read with irritation all the notices about using public transport to access the hospital. I am the first to agree with the principal but many people visiting hospitals are sick, or are taking someone who is sick, or trying to visit a relative or friend who is sick and they are stressed, in a hurry, trying to do it and still carry on with their daily lives and do not have time to visit the Transport for London website to work out the best route!

My mother's feet

The problem with my mother's knees spread to her feet. They became so swollen that she could barely place them on the ground and walking a few steps was a problem. She was seen yesterday by a rheumatologist and suddenly the picture is beginning to fall into place. I was diagnosed with mixed connective tissue disease two years ago. It is an condition where your immune system malfunctions and rather than dealing with all the normal everyday germs and cells it destroys the healthy ones instead. These illnesses can present in a variety of ways, but in my case I had many minor symptoms such as joint aches and pains and major problems with my lungs, kidneys and blood clotting. There is some sort of genetic predisposition to these illness but I never expected my mother to develop something similar as the diseases are relatively rare and usually present in younger people (my mother is 76). Anyway, it seems that is exactly what she has got and her swollen feet are most likely caused by the fact that her kidneys are leaking protein. She was admitted to hospital yesterday and will likely be in the hospital while we move her stuff and empty her house at the weekend. It is going to be quite a time!

Monday, 18 June 2007

Terry Wogan

Last week I went for a brief visit to Limerick. I am going to be an examiner for the course there and I just went over to meet everyone. The flight to Limerick is one hour but the journey to Heathrow airport from my house takes 3 hours and you have to be there at least an hour and a half before the plane takes off so it takes pretty much the whole day! On top of that, my flight was an hour late leaving so I spent a lot of time sitting in the airport! Coming back was no better. I was dropped off at Shannon airport in good time and then waited for three hours as my flight was delayed due to an earlier incident at Heathrow, weather and probably also the arrival of an important visitor. Two police motor cyclists and a limousine were waiting for the flight. I saw a friendly looking chap also waiting and I said to him 'you probably can't tell me who it is that's arriving can you?' He smiled and said 'well you will hear him every morning on your English radio'. I guessed correctly that it was Terry Wogan and had plenty of time to organise this photo of him! He is apparently from the Limerick area and was on his way to be made a freeman of the city! I found some interesting opinions from local people on this decision on the Limerick blog page

The discussion below sums up the divided opinion!

"Fuck Terry Wogan, he turned his back on Limerick years ago. Give the honour to someone that deserves it"

"Lots of people left Limerick (including myself) to find work, we were hardly turning our back on the city, just looking for work. He could hardly have made it to the top of broadcasting if he stayed in Limerick. Did you expect him to stay here and co host a show with Tom Ryan? Bill Whelan, Delores O Riordan, the Mc Courts, Ciarain Mc Mathuna, Kate O Brien, Dickie Harris, Catherine Hayes, could they have made it in the city of knockers?"

"... I agree that lots of people left Limerick to better their lives and careers.
You seem to have missed my point completely. The point I'm making is that unlike most of the other people you mentioned he rarely acknowledged his roots in Limerick and rarely if ever promoted the city.
Yet the powers that be want to honour him when it seems all he if did for Limerick was to turn his back on the place. Lots more deserving people than him for the award.
He probably wouldn't know where Limerick is now anyway"

Sunday, 10 June 2007

A surprise in the driveway

Writing the last post reminded me of another time when the past caused quite a surprise to some poor builder. The people that owned the house that backs on to my mother's decided to lay a new driveway and engaged a firm of builders to do the work. They set to with their digger to remove the old concrete drive but had to stop rather suddenly when they unearthed a hand grenade! The area was sealed off, the bomb disposal squad called and the offending item was eventually removed and disposed of. No one could explain how it got there except my mother who remembered that during the war the man who was living there at the time had brought the grenade home with him on leave from the army and had given it to his wife in case there was an invasion and she needed it to defend herself. (Quite what she would do with it I don't know, but I guess people were very scared) Fortunately, it was never needed but as it was obtained illegally the man didn't know quite what to do with it after the war ended. He told my grandfather that he eventually decided to bury it in his new drive. (My mother remembered this because she remembered my grandfather saying that it was a bl**dy stupid thing to do!)

My mother's house

My grandparents bought the house where my mother now lives in about 1930, when it was just built. It was part of the development of the London suburbs and people like my grandfather, from poorer parts of London, saw it as a way to move out to a more peaceful environment and at last own their own home. (Prior to that my grandparents lived in rented accommodation in Camden Town, which is now trendy and desirable but then was rough and definitely a down-market move for my grandmother!) They moved when my mother was a toddler and lived there all through my mother's childhood. The houses had big gardens and all the neighbours grew their own vegetables, the children played together outside and all walked to the local school together. My mother was 11 when the war started and for a while they stayed in the house and continued as normal. There was an Anderson shelter built in the back garden and when the air raid sirens sounded the whole family trouped into the garden and slept semi-underground. Sometimes neighbours shared shelters to make it more bearable. (In a hot, dry summer a strange bare patch appears on the lawn outlining the foundations of the shelter as most people just covered them over with soil after the war ended.) My mother talks about how scared she was when she heard the sirens, and at one point things must have been quite bad as embedded in the floorboards in the front bedroom is a piece of shrapnel that flew through the roof during an air raid. For some time my mother and grandmother were evacuated and lived in Shropshire while my grandfather stayed at home, but this did not seem to last long and they all returned before the end of the war. The house and family survived and my mother lived there until she got married at the age of twenty eight. For a couple of years she lived with my father in a rented flat above the shop where he worked but then I came along and it got a bit cramped. At this point my grandparents decided to retire to live by the sea and sold the house back to my mother and father at a 'family rate', which is the only way they were able to afford their own home. I moved there when I was about 2 years old and shortly after my sister and then my brother arrived to make it a busy and noisy family home. (It only had three small bedrooms so I shared with my sister while my brother had a 'box' room to himself). We played in the garden, met friends in the street, charged round on our bikes and went to the same school that my mother went to as a child. One by one we grew up, left home and then returned to live there for brief periods after travelling, when relationships broke up, in between house moves etc! My mother and father continued to live there happily until he died 22 years ago and since then my mother has lived there alone. Over time the house has got sadder; the decoration is faded and grubby, the electrics are dangerous, the plumbing no longer works, the roof needs replacing and the garden has got overgrown. This combined with my mother's knees has led her to finally decide to move and she has a buyer for the house and a new home in a retirement apartment close to my sister. All being well she will leave the house for good in 2 weeks and the house will leave our family the week after. I hope it will be in good hands.

Sunday, 3 June 2007

My shopping list

I was watching TV Saturday and there was a conversation about what people in the future may want to know about us. The debate went something like they would bombarded with information about our technology, poems, achievements etc through the Internet but the details of our everyday lives, such as what we ate and what we bought would be lost. In order to make sure that there is a record of the mundane bits of my life I am adding the details of a shopping list I found in my bag! Feel free to read no further as this is really for the benefit future generations!

organic juice
fresh milk (6litres)
Vanilla Ice cream
Britvic J2O (2 packs of 4- a fruit juice drink)
8 salmon fillets
Lurpak spread (Like butter)
Anchor Spread (also like butter)
Olive oil
Romaine lettuce
Raspberry Vinegar
Organic bread
A bunch of tulips
1 lime
1 red pepper
2 lemons
1 cantaloupe melon
Penne Pasta (packet)
Organic spring onions
Baby new potatoes
Tomatoes on the vine
Organic cherry tomatoes (reduced price)
1 litre coca cola
bananas (2.95kg)
1 avocado
1 bottle thick bleach

The total bill was £48.87 and the shopping was for a meal for 6!

Part 2 of strange dream

I found out from my neighbours that on the day that the lady next door set fire to her house she went down to the hospital to ask for help and to be admitted. (She is well known as she has a long history of self harm). She told them that if she wasn't allowed to stay in she was afraid that when her husband went to work that night she would set fire to the house. She was sent home and after dropping off her baby at her mothers she went back to her house and did exactly what she had threatened earlier. She is now locked up somewhere on remand, miles away from her family. I don't know whether she does have a treatable mental illness and whether she should have been admitted but from my point of view she obviously was a serious risk to herself and others and my understanding of the mental health act is that that is the criteria for admission. Perhaps someone made a wrong judgement or perhaps I don't know the full story but whatever the truth the consequence is that she is probably now in about the worst place she could be for her and her family.

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Return of my mother's knees

My mother's knees have also returned. Well, in fact they have been with us all this time, getting worse and worse. She has been getting quite fed up with them as in addition to the knees she is feeling stiff and tired and generally not able to do too much. When she has been sitting for any length of time she has great difficulties moving and the pain seems quite unbearable. She is not normally a depressed person but this has really begun to get her down. She has decided to move to a retirement flat and has sold her house (another story for another time) but has basically spent the best part of three months back and forth to her doctor trying to find out what is wrong. It seems at last that they are thinking beyond just wear and tear in her knees and she is in the middle of a series of tests and investigations so hopefully there will be some answers soon. I did some thinking about her symptoms, some searching on the Internet and together with my professional knowledge and my own experience of a rheumatic disease and think she may have polymyalgia rheumatica. When I read out the symptoms to her she could identify with several of them. The thing she was most happy about was the bit that said that polymyalgia was treatable with corticosteroids and treatment may bring almost immediate relief! I can remember how I felt after my first infusion of intravenous steroids when I was first ill. I got up the next morning and for the first time in months could lift my arms up in the shower without it hurting. The relief was amazing and I would love for my mother to get that feeling.

Return of the ladies who don't get their hair wet

Well, not so much their return as my return to them. Life and 'getting out of the habit' has kept me away from them for a while but today I made the effort and went swimming. They were on form. I walked in to a positive revolution as they were complaining about the fact that on Wednesday mornings there is now a triathlon club from 6.45 and 'there were five people per lane'. Even more upsetting to the ladies was that 'there's all that splashing..I mean they don't just do a gentle backstroke'. I must admit when I went in it was a bit busier than usual but by 8.00am the pool was virtually empty again. I have never been able to work out why the ladies, who must be of an age now where they don't need to work, just don't come a little later after the morning rush has subsided. After swimming they took up their usual seat in the club room and drank their tea!

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

The role of the marshall

We found out the other week that our role as a volunteer marshall at the Tour de France really involves a lot of standing. We arrive somewhere remote at some very early time of day and stand all day telling people how to get to the nearest toilet! If there is anything nasty to do we put up our hand and someone who is being paid comes over and does it. We get a medal, a bottle of water and some sun screen for our troubles! We mustn't take photos, talk on our mobiles, listen to iPODs etc! Mind you, we do get the chance to be part of the biggest sporting event in the world. (Yes.. true.. more spectators worldwide than the world cup!)

Cat wars

There seem to be few cat wars going on around here. Mandi, my very neurotic and slightly strange cat, got beaten up the other week and now every time he sees another cat in the garden runs in and hides down the back of the kitchen cabinets. Next door has a lively black cat called kit-cat who tries to get in and get his share of dinner when he can and on the other side there is a tabby called puss-puss who is rather put out at the arrival of a dog in his home and spends time sitting on my windowsill and staring in (much to the annoyance of Mandi and Norma who hiss and spit providing the glass separates them from him). Then, there is the black cat with the scabby skin condition, the thin black and white un-neutered tom and the big bruiser black and white tom that all appear in my garden. There are three other cats that look suspiciously like the tom cats, a very fluffy multi-coloured cat, a fluffy white one, a chocolate point cat and British blue shorthair called Oscar (although we don't see so much of him since he had his balls removed!). At least 4 of these cats see my cat-flap as the snack stop to keep them going on route and while they are at it pee up the wall so I know they have been there! There is a lot of territorial negotiating going on at the moment and most of it is in my back garden! Also in my back garden on the newly dug out flower bed is the communal cat toilet!

A wet bank holiday

My mother always said that the weather in May is unpredictable. My sister was born in the middle of May in a heatwave and 2 years and 2 weeks later my brother was born into a frost! This was 45 years ago and despite global warming this May has been the same. In London on Monday the temperature didn't get higher than 7 Celsius! So, we had a 'typical' bank holiday weekend. On Saturday, the nicest and sunniest day, Ian got out the hedge cutter and shredder and we attacked my overgrown hedge. We made good progress with the trimming and then started to shred the remains to use a mulch. It turned drizzly and Ian was hungry and the shredder seemed to be playing up so he went out to do a final bit of shredding while I made lunch. I was just finishing off the sandwiches when the shredder cut out and Ian came running across the garden holding his hand. A stick had been kicked back out of the shredder and sliced into his hand and for once he wasn't wearing gloves! It looked OK at first although he turned a bit grey and felt faint. We covered it up but when I looked at it later to clean it realised it was a bit deeper than I had thought. (I felt a bit guilty as I had initially thought it was just a little cut and he had over-reacted!) Anyway, Saturday afternoon was spent waiting in accident and emergency. People were complaining about waiting but personally I felt that it was pretty fair. Ian's injury was not that serious and in fact a rest for 2 hours was probably exactly what we both needed. He saw a nurse after a while who cleaned it, stuck it back together, covered it up and gave him a tetanus booster and we got back in time for dinner! Sunday was spent shopping and in the afternoon I tried to save my pond, which I had killed by neglect. It was covered in blanket weed, sludge and full of debris from the winter. By this time it was pouring with rain but I was so pleased to see that the frog who lives in the pond had managed to survive (although he seemed rather cross at having his pond disturbed). I also saw a baby newt although the adult had not been so lucky and I fished him out dead. For the rest of the day we looked out at the pouring rain! On Monday Ian discovered that the reason that the shredder had shot him was because it was b**ggered and set about trying to mend it. After a trip to an electrical store and a new part the shredder worked again and in between rain and wind we attempted to tame the garden! So.. I guess that was my bank holiday and it was probably quite like the bank holiday of many others (judging by the other men in accident and emergency with similar looking hands!) (I will try to get a picture of the frog if I can as he is rather beautiful and I am quite proud of him for survivng despite my neglect).

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Strange dream?

I was tired last night so went to be early and soon settled down to a nice nights sleep. I was in the middle of a really nice dream when I heard a bell ringing. After a while I realised that it was my door bell and managed to leave my dream long enough to get up and see what it was. I opened the door to see a policeman there telling me that the house next door was on fire, the fire brigade were on their way and I didn't need to leave just yet but he was letting me know just in case! I remember going back upstairs and throwing on some clothes over my nightdress and then going outside as the fire brigade arrived. My neighbours were looking out the window and people were standing around. We stopped and had a conversation as it seems that the woman who lives there has been unwell lately and may have started the fire deliberately. The fire brigade left, the cat ran out of the house in a panic and after a while the dog was located somewhere in the house and rescued by the family. I decided to go back to bed and in an almost inappropriately short space of time was fast asleep again! When I woke the next morning I wasn't even sure that it had happened except for the black windows and the curtains in the upstairs bedroom next door. My neighbours were saying that it must be something to do with the house as everyone that has lived there has had mental health problems. I live in a small cul-de-sac but a lot happens! Last week the woman over the road was evicted. Her possessions were piled up into the council van and driven away!