Sunday, 6 December 2009

On Weekend Pancakes

Yesterday morning we had pancakes for breakfast. They were delicious, warm, and drizzled with maple syrup.

This morning we also had pancakes for breakfast. Since I’m currently not in possession of any Bonne Maman Cherry Compote, I had good old-fashioned sugar and lemon on them.

Those of you who follow me on twitter will know that this weekend pancake ritual is a regular occurrence. I tweet regularly about the Wonderspouse cooking pancakes on weekend mornings, so I thought I’d explain how it all started and why we do it!

Before I do, I’ll tell you a little about weekday breakfasts. On weekdays we get up quite early – the alarm goes at 5.30, and once the Wonderspouse has lured me into the land of the living with a cup of tea (I don’t actually exist in the mornings until I’ve had tea), I get dressed, make the bed and head downstairs where I just about manage to consume a bowl of cereal or instant porridge washed down with a glass of smoothie. The Wonderspouse generally eats toast, often with cheese and Marmite, and sometimes has cereal too. Whatever the case, it’s a quick snatched meal, before we depart for the commute to work – no time to linger over a weekday breakfast, and never, sadly, time for a second cup of tea.

The weekends are entirely different though.

Since the Wonderspouse left the world of retail, neither of us has to work regularly at weekends, so unless there is anything special going on, there is no alarm clock. The morning cup of tea is sometimes followed by more dozing, then we have plenty of time for a relaxed breakfast. These days it’s almost always pancakes, followed by the much desired second cup of tea.

We worked out yesterday that this pancake tradition started in summer 2004, so it’s now over half a decade old. Maybe bizarrely it actually began with an excess of strawberries. The Wonderspouse used to work in a small carpet shop and, owing to a miscalculation of scale on the part of his boss (who was catering for a small drinks reception), he arrived home from work one Saturday with about 10 punnets of strawberries.

Obviously, we couldn’t manage to eat that many with cream, so we set about doing creative things with strawberries (don’t smirk, not THAT creative), and one of the things we did was chop them up into little bits, put them into pancake batter, and have the pancakes for breakfast. I was instantly reminded of how much I like pancakes (I really really like pancakes), and so we decided to repeat the experience the following weekend, having had multiple discussions along the lines of “Pancakes are too good to be restricted to Shrove Tuesday” and so on. And a tradition was born.

Initially, the pancake tradition was confined to Sundays. I had, for many years (since my college days in fact) become accustomed to cooking myself porridge or having an egg on toast for Saturday breakfasts and the porridge/egg debate continued for some time. However, as time went on, the occasional Saturday pancake breakfast turned into a regular feature, so now we have pancakes for breakfast on both Saturday and Sunday mornings.

We don’t actually have strawberry pancakes any more. I’ve developed a fondness for Bonne Maman Cherry Compote as a filling, although I don’t always get it because it’s rather hard to get hold of these days. Maple syrup and sugar and lemon are also popular options, and in the summer we quite often have a scoop of ice cream as well.

We’ve also introduced pancakes into our evening meal menu – my favourite filling is “burnt” mince and cheese, with a little Reggae Reggae Sauce and some extra cheese sprinkled on top. A very delicious supper indeed!!

People often ask if it’s less of a treat because we do it so regularly. Well, in over 5 years of weekend breakfast pancakes the “treat” factor has not subsided. Maybe the weekends are just far enough apart that we don’t become accustomed too strongly to the pancake breakfasts. Maybe the association with the relaxed getting up times, second cups of tea etc. means that it remains a treat. Maybe I’m just very very fond of pancakes!!!

A few pictures from this morning’s pancake making follow! Please excuse the terrible state of the cooker - the Wonderspouse is not a particularly clean and tidy cook! He does make great pancakes though!

Monday, 2 November 2009

On Where to Read

I find myself sitting here with a pile of books I want to read. And I have a dilemma. Because I don’t yet want to have a bath!

So what’s the problem, I hear you all cry, just read somewhere that isn’t the bath.

And I now realise why I only ever read in the bath – because there IS nowhere else comfy enough in my house that allows me to rest a book at the appropriate angle and at the appropriate distance away from my face, other than the bath.

I’m currently in my study. I have 2 chairs in my study. Neither of them is comfortable enough to sit on to read, unless I read at my desk like we used to do at school, which isn’t actually very comfortable. I also have a futon, which looks like this – don’t think there’s room for me on there.

So that means that reading would have to be done somewhere else.

The only other place I ever sit is my sofa downstairs. It’s a great sofa for lying on to watch TV or fall asleep, but its design is such that it has no “arms” as such, nowhere to rest a book, and it isn’t wide enough to accommodate both me and book together. If I sit on it (as opposed to lying down) for more than about half an hour then it makes my back hurt. When I am sitting in any vaguely comfortable position my arms ache from holding the book at a suitable distance from my eyes.

So what about the bed? Well yes, I love to read in bed. Or rather I did. These days however, there just isn’t space. The bed is not a big one. Neither the Wonderspouse nor I is particularly diminutive. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to evict my husband from our bed or anything, but any attempt to introduce a papery third party into the marital bed usually ends with too many elbows, not enough pillow space and a generally grumpy sort of a situation. And, if I’m quite honest, by the time I get to bed, there is very little chance that I will manage more than a couple of paragraphs anyway before falling asleep.

So, short of sitting on the stairs, or curling up on the floor, I’m a bit stuck. What I really need is a nice armchair or something. But I don’t have a nice armchair. Even if I did have a nice armchair, there would be nowhere to put it – the house is so full of unsuitable sofas, random tables, heirloomish sideboards, pianos, and, ironically, bookcases, that there is simply nowhere to put an armchair.


I think if I want to do more reading I’m simply going to have to have more baths. Pass the soap someone!

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

On Holes and Ladders

Even if you are VERY unobservant, you may have noticed that there hasn’t been much added to this blog in the last month – in fact, it’s almost exactly a month since I last posted.

There are all the usual reasons & excuses – been busy, been on holiday, been a bit tired etc. but I’m now facing up to the real reason – been a bit bonkers again! If you’re unaware of my bonkersness, you can check it out here!

I’ve been trying to fight this bonkersness for a while, but things have gradually come adrift at the seams – I’ve had to defer my OU maths exam for this year because I reached the point where seeing a maths book was making me feel physically ill with anxiety, I’ve taken the odd day off work here and there, I’ve maybe drunk more than I should, eaten too much cake, stared at the lightbox to help the SAD situation, tested the patience of the Wonderspouse somewhat, and got to the stage where I’m sleeping about 2 hours per night!

However, I’ve finally stopped trying to fight it and given up for the time being. After a very peculiar week in France (being on holiday while bonkers is quite strange), I’ve come home, not gone back to work, booked a doctor’s appointment, STILL failed to unpack (it just seems way too difficult), forced the Wonderspouse to wear trousers that don’t fit because he has no other clean ones, and, this morning, burst into tears at the sight of two Weetabix!!

I’ve also just posted a slightly odd status update on my facebook wall:

“Opposition to installation of ladder currently occurring. Might spoil the view apparently. Strengthening of arms for better grip on ropes is being suggested. Searching for maps so as to find alternative route not going near hole.”

so I thought I might explain it here. At least I’m actually writing something again, which is more than I’ve done for weeks (even before the posts dried up, they became progressively less numerous). Strangely enough, giving up on TRYING to write a blog post has actually produced one!

Some time ago, when I had a small wobble, I described my mental health as having fallen down a deep dark hole. I’ve come across this description before, and it felt appropriate at the time. The resulting conversation on my facebook wall included a friend “fetching ropes” and “pulling on ropes”, and so the analogy continued.

I’ve actually found it a rather helpful analogy. Again, this morning, ropes, climbing gear, pulling me out and so on have been mentioned, and I’ve now continued the analogy even further.

Installation of ladder means going back on antidepressant drugs (which I don’t take for the reasons cited in the post linked to above). Spoiling the view refers to the blocking of appreciation of music, art and so on – all those things I love so much. Strengthening of arms refers to being able to do it on my own (preferred choice if I can manage it). Finding an alternative route means looking (again) to see if there are changes I can make to my life to stop it happening again (or, at least, to lessen the effect or make it less frequent or something – I’m not being too optimistic here).

So that’s the current state of play. The way I felt when I woke up this morning I was almost ready to say “Who cares? Just give me pills!” However, as today has progressed, what I think I shall say to the doctor tomorrow morning has changed. Support from friends online (messages, comments, a poem, and so on) and a bit of reflection makes me wonder if I can carry on doing it on my own.

And, in many ways, life isn’t actually that bad at the moment. There are things going on that are particularly good in fact. Things that give me quite a lot of cause to be optimistic and hopeful about the future. Things that make me feel that the fog in my brain will eventually clear. Things that might just mean I can clamber out of the dark hole on my own and learn how not to fall in again.

Now it’s just a question of how far down the hole I’m actually going to fall this time. Have I admitted the situation to myself early enough not to end up at the very bottom where the sides are steepest? Can I find some way to get inside my rather chaotic head and get it all back to some sort of order? If there’s no other way out then I’ll get a ladder installed, but I’m going to try the climbing route first. I can feel many people pulling on ropes from above, sending flasks of tea & bars of chocolate down to help sustain me on the journey.

Hopefully I’ll see you at the top!

Monday, 28 September 2009

On Four Fabulous Felines

Hello dear blog reader! I’m really sorry I haven’t managed to post anything for so long, and thought you might be getting a bit bored of waiting, so I thought I’d just put up a few pictures of the family for you to see!

I’ll be telling you all about how each of these furry friends came to live with us in future posts (when I have a few minutes to write those posts). I thought you might like to meet them first though.

Felix is our boy! He and the Wonderspouse were bachelor boys together before I even appeared on the scene. He’s big, strong, agile, and loves to headbut our legs so hard we nearly fall over. He also has the endearing habit of coming to the car door to meet me every day when I get home from work.

Tiggy is our little girl. She’s sort of MY cat (although there are no hard and fast rules here – it’s more a case of 4 cats with 2 slaves in actual fact). Her face is my picture on twitter. She’s a prolific and skilled hunter, but has an adorable temperament with all humans except vets.

Athena is the younger of the two old dears. She has an extremely loud voice, different coloured eyes, and very fine white fur that sheds absolutely everywhere. She can also be quite stroppy at times, and would eat herself to death if we let her. She loves being brushed though and can be calmed with enough fuss.

Pebbles is the quiet one, and the oldest (she’s around 17). She’s absolutely terrified of anything mechanical, especially the hoover, but she’s become increasingly friendly during the years we’ve had her. She’s very small and light, but still quite an agile old thing, and she loves climbing all over her humans!

So there you are – four fabulous felines, our little family. Of course, they can be quite troublesome, and we often call them the fearsome foursome. Anyone who’s ever been in our kitchen at suppertime will know what we mean – allegedly cats don’t hunt in packs, but it often feels like they might!

Thursday, 17 September 2009

On Trying to Get Comfy

This morning I’ve been trying to solve a number of semi-long-standing problems with the set up of my computer at home. By the set up, I don’t mean software, that’s all tootling along as well as can be expected, but the actual physical set up of my workstation.

The fact that I decided to do it this morning was triggered by pain in my wrists when I sat down to type. Inspection showed them to be red and rather sore. I decided that I needed a wrist rest, like I have at work. However, I have no such thing, and the fact that our local town centre is currently closed off for a funfair means that going to search for one would mean a 30 mile round trip, so I fetched a hand towel from the airing cupboard, rolled it up, and discovered that even if I did have a wrist rest, it wouldn’t fit on the desk in any case.

I decided it was time to install the small flatscreen monitor that a friend loaned me over a fortnight ago. The giant (really giant) old fashioned monitor that I’ve had for several years started off with a beautiful screen, but has now got to the stage where (a) it looks all white & milky, (b) all the windows have wiggly edges and (c) it has irritating diagonal stripes crossing the screen. It is also so big that even if I have it right up against the wall at the back of the desk, my nose is almost touching it when I sit at the desk, which is probably not very good for me.

In my office job I am trained as a DSE (display screen equipment) assessor, which means that I’ve been on courses that tell me how people SHOULD sit at a computer when they’re working, and tell me all sorts of horror stories about RSI (repetitive strain injury) or the even more catchy WRULD (work related upper limb disorder). Partly because I spend so much of my life stressed and tense, and partly because I’ve done a lot of jobs involving data entry, I do have various problems with my shoulders, arms, wrists and fingers. At work, where it comes from the health and safety budget, I have a special rollermouse device, a workstation properly set up, and a chair that does almost everything except stir my tea.

Home, however, is a different story. Buying a rollermouse is beyond my budget, so I have two mice, one each side of the keyboard. When my right hand starts to hurt, I use my left, when my left hurts, I use my right. When they both hurt I get a glass of whisky! The keyboard sometimes wobbles a bit, so I wedge it with a piece of tissue, and the chair (a cast off that was headed for a skip) provides no support, and doesn’t really fit under the desk (which isn’t a desk at all, but a table with drawers, also rescued from a skip, sanded down and repainted by me). Furthermore, the printer has to go on the floor, so I often rest my left foot on it and end up sitting lopsided too.

None of this was a problem until about 3 months ago when broadband entered our lives. Before then, internet time was just a couple of short sessions each evening, I didn’t blog, didn’t do very much on facebook or twitter (it was all just too slow and cost a fortune on the phone bill), and just typed up the occasional document or did a bit of household budget stuff on spreadsheets. I was never on the computer long enough for it to be a problem. Now, however, I’m online all the time, I read & write blogs, I footle around on facebook, try constantly to keep up with e-mails, watch digital TV stuff on the iPlayer, and as for twitter – well, let’s just say that I’m more than an occasional user!!

And my body knows it. So, I thought replacing the screen would be a good idea. Furthermore it would mean that I could tell the friend who loaned me the monitor that I’d set it up, so I wouldn’t look like an ungrateful so-and-so! Like everything, it turned out not to be that simple. Getting of torches, crawling under desks, locating wires and so on, was followed by a gargantuan effort to move the giant monitor out of the way (hampered by the chair getting stuck in the doorway – everything’s a bit tight round here – we have way too much stuff), then the discovery that I needed to reset the screen resolution because the new one wouldn’t work (more unplugging etc) then dropping the giant monitor on my toe (why do this job in slippers?) then needing to find polish to dust the desk properly, then setting the whole lot up properly.

At that point I tweeted “I want my mummy”, and the Wonderspouse tweeted back that my mother would actually be one of the least helpful people to have around since she is even more OCD than me and would be even more stressed. He then rang me up to tell me to keep calm. I would say that the battle between me and my workstation has now reached some kind of uneasy truce. The rolled up towel now fits on the desk and is an adequate enough wrist rest for now to stop my most paranoid fears about nerve damage preventing me from ever playing the viola again. The screen is almost at the right height (assisted by Donald Jay Grout’s “A History of Western Music”), although my desktop icons have all gone haywire and it’s so small that I can only see about 5 tweets to a screen. It isn’t stripey or faded or wiggly though. The chair & desk situation remains poor, but to sort that out would require serious removals, which will need much preparation (there is a bookcase on top of the desk for starters), and maybe financial outlay.

And all the time, the maths books sit on the other desk, where I should be working. Maybe I already knew that I wasn’t going to get enough assignment done to gain the marks I need to get a higher grade. Maybe all the computer moving activity was just a diversion to confirm the inevitable. I can almost hear my ambitions of a decent mark dropping to the ground like a giant monitor onto a toe. Maybe it’s time to listen to the wise Wonderspouse again, when he tells me that all I need to do is pass the course – I can worry about degree classifications later. I’d never think of chastising somebody for not getting high marks in every assignment, so why do I do it to myself?

So am I comfy? Well, not really. The knowledge that the computer set up is still not finished unsettles me. A few of the physical problems have been solved, but many remain. The unfinished maths assignment also unsettles me. But I have simply reached the end of my resources with it, having been under so much pressure for so many months. Most of this pressure, I hasten to add, self-inflicted. Perhaps it is time, as the Wonderspouse suggests, to draw a line under the maths coursework situation, to take a break, and then to revise gently for the forthcoming exam. Then, if I can manage that, I might try to indulge in an activity very foreign to me, which I’m told is called “relaxing”.

This wasn’t what I intended to blog about at all this week, but, like computer set-ups and maths assignments, things aren’t always exactly as we would wish them to be. I think it might have been good for me to write this, even if a little dull for you to read. If there is anybody out there still reading at this point, then I admire your perseverance – thank you!

Saturday, 12 September 2009

On The Big One

Eight years ago today I got in the car to go to work as usual (it was a Wednesday, not a Saturday as it is this year). I’d had a very usual sort of morning: drag myself out of bed, drink a glass of orange juice, sit in the bath and cry for half an hour, nibble a bowl of cereal, then get into the car. Rather different from my morning routine today, but that was how it used to be.

I left my flat, drove the 20 or so minute journey to work, and pulled into the car park of the large comprehensive school in the London borough of Haringey, where I was Head of Music. All seemed as usual until I tried to get out of the car.

My legs refused to budge. I couldn’t move. I called the school office from my mobile phone and told them I wasn’t feeling too well. I then drove straight to the doctor’s surgery. After a tearful appointment with a very unsympathetic doctor, I headed for home with a medical certificate and a stash of antidepressants.

I then went to bed. I didn’t get up again for two weeks.

In fact, the next date after that time that means anything to me is November 5th, when I was visited by an old friend, the same old friend who would eventually become my husband. He had to visit me at my flat because at that time I was still leaving the house only to go to my psychiatrist appointments.

The weeks between September 12th and November 5th are largely lost to me. I know that the world was full of turmoil, and I suspect I watched a lot of news (in those days I had digital TV and was in the habit of leaving the rolling news on 24 hours a day). I know that I still wasn’t driving again in November, and that I gave the car keys to a friend who had the car while I was too ill to use it. I know that I saw my psychiatrist, and I have vague memories of walking through Grovelands Park to visit the hospital from time to time. I remember huge pain in my head. I remember one night that nearly didn’t have a following morning (and am thankful to this day that the main effect a large amount of alcohol has on me is to induce sleep). I know that I must have checked my e-mail at some point, because I read a very significant e-mail that resulted in the meeting on November 5th.

Almost all other detail is lost, which is strange, because I usually have a reasonably good memory. I do remember the date though, every year, and not just because of the events unfolding in the world at the time. Eight years ago today was the breakdown that I now call “The Big One”, where I went from functioning human being to complete wreck in the space of a few hours.

I can hardly believe how much life has now changed, how much I have learnt about myself, and how my plans and ambitions have changed since that day. One thing never changes though – every year on 12th September I think about the years I nearly didn’t have as a result of what happened back in 2001, and every year the sun shines just a little bit brighter that day as I consider the wonderful things I would have missed out on if things had turned out differently.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

On Being Obedient

That looks really strange that title! Me? Obedient? Although I do what I can to fit into society and would, I hope, be unlikely to get an ASBO, I’m usually about as obedient as a cat – i.e. not very!

It was therefore quite a shock to most who attended my wedding to the Wonderspouse that I promised to OBEY him! Yes, I really did. Although we got married in a relatively modern United Reformed Church (yes, we did get married in church, however extraordinary that now seems), we had the “traditional” marriage words from 16somethingorother: having and holding, better for worse, richer for poorer (still waiting for the richer bit!), etc etc. and yes, we had the bit where I said I’d obey him.

Fortunately for me, he hasn’t held me to the obedience bit too much – he’s a wise enough man to know that if he tries too hard to control me then I’ll become very unhappy – we’re both creatures who need our own personal space, just like the cats need their own places to sleep. Quite a household of independent creatures here!

However, from time to time the obedience clause is invoked. Usually it happens when I’m still footling about hanging out washing or looking for a CD or some similar activity and am clearly exhausted and he’ll say “Come on, sit down, have a rest and drink your tea – you promised to obey me!” It’s not exactly heavy tactics, but it has reduced the number of cold cups of tea that end up down the sink because I’ve forgotten to drink them!

This week he’s been urging me to obey him again! I’ve been ill. Not seriously ill, not mentally ill (although my mood has dipped because my usual exercise regime has gone wrong), but just the sort of boring “sore throat, cold, cough, slightly queasy feeling” ill that everyone gets from time to time. I’m pretty useless at being ill, or, as he puts it “You’re a nightmare when you’re ill”, and I find it very hard to switch off and “relax”. I’m just not really a “putting my feet up” sort of a person.

However, this week has been worse than usual, partly because the house REALLY needs cleaning, but mainly because I’m in the middle of one of the busiest times of the year for my current OU maths course. I have one assignment now a week overdue (for which the revised deadline is tomorrow) and another due next Friday (which cannot be extended). There is also an exam looming in October.

Early this year, when I started the course, I had my usual high hopes for a top-grade pass for the course. My first TMA (tutor marked assignment) came back with a perfect 100, which seemed like a good start, and all other marks were 95 and above until the one I had to complete after a month off for a depressive episode in June/July, which weighed in at a lowly 85. Oh well, I thought, if I work extra hard I can make it up!

However, that hasn’t really worked. Time quite literally ran out for the next assignment – I was only able to submit 12 marks worth of work and came away with a mark of just 11. One really bad assignment is just about coverable, but I’m now so far behind that it’s now certain that there will be at least two bad assignments (if not 3). This means that the top-grade pass for this course will no longer be possible, even if I do really well in the exam (which is, of course, not a foregone conclusion). Me being me, I’m starting to stress about the whole business. I want to do it all perfectly. I don’t want to hand in rubbish work, I don’t want to get a low mark. I want to try to get a first for my degree overall. The dreaded perfectionism creeps in!

So I try to work harder. I make more effort to sit at my desk and study. And, guess what happens – the harder I push, the less I get done. And I am surprised. Goodness knows why I’m surprised, this exact thing happened in the final weeks of my doomed doctorate when I was trying desperately hard to complete a chapter at the beginning of my third year in order to convince my funding body and supervisor that my money should continue. I got up at 8 every morning (sounds like a lie-in now), sat at my desk at 9, and tried to write. And failed.

In the years since then I’ve learnt that this method does not work for me. My mind is no more likely to obey me than it is to obey anyone else. However, this “sit at your desk, shut up, and get on with your work” thing is so ingrained in me from years of school and helpful advice that I keep doing it. Apparently I’ve not actually learnt anything in the 15 or so years since my doctoral thesis dried up like a river that flows into the desert, never to reach the sea.

However, last night and this morning I’ve finally had to accept that I can’t do it all. I’ve spent the last 3 days sitting at my desk watching limits and functions swim before my eyes, coughing until I ache, sucking on an inhaler and swigging Benylin straight from the bottle, before eventually giving up, playing on twitter all day and giving myself RSI as well! It is time to stop. Now I must attend to the practicalities of contacting my tutor (will I never get over feeling as though I’m telling her the cat ate my homework?), and working out what the best strategy is to get the best pass I can for the course (even though it will not be a top grade and, in all likelihood, will not end up counting towards my final degree result anyway). Damage limitation!

Furthermore, the Wonderspouse is telling me to obey him again. This time his orders are “Stop worrying about everything!” and “Don’t beat yourself up!”

I’m going to try very hard to be an obedient wife. I did promise.

Monday, 7 September 2009

On Childhood Cats

I realise that, thus far, this blog’s main title may have been a bit misleading. While there have been several posts that are, at least loosely, linked to music, I still haven’t written much about maths (partly because I’m doing so much at the moment in order to prepare for a forthcoming exam that I don’t feel very inclined to blog about it), and I’ve hardly even mentioned the moggies.

So here is a little post about some of the cats I grew up with!

Cats seem to have featured in my life ever since I was born. In fact, when my grandparents came to visit me just after I was born, they had the rather sad task of telling my mum that the old family cat from her childhood had just died. All thoughts of new baby (me) vanished, and mum went straight into mourning for the cat!

When I was about 5 my parents decided that it was time to introduce a cat to our family. We’d just moved into the house that was to be my home until I left to go to college when I was 18, so it seemed like a good time. We adopted a little kitten, who was named Leonora (and subsequently Leonora the First). However, this is a sad story – little Leonora was already fatally ill when she arrived and we had her for just 3 days. My only memories of her are of a small kitten being sick into a saucer.

Leonora the Second was her replacement. She was a fine and social cat, who loved the car (particularly curling up to sleep on the back parcel shelf where the sun came in through the window). She was very friendly with a white tom cat called Toby who lived over the road. Unfortunately, her life was also cut tragically short – she was hit by a car on the way back from visiting Toby one night. I remember my parents telling us the next morning. Another grave in the back garden, and a white tom cat sitting on the doorstep for ages afterwards howling and looking for his Leonora.

At that point my parents decided to stop getting cats. However, circumstances overtook them. My father was a science teacher, and took one of his classes out on some sort of nature walk one day. Two boys discovered a tiny kitten under a bush, and the body of a grown cat was subsequently discovered on the road outside the school. The kitten lived in a box in the prep room for a day or so until it was established that no home could be found. My father called my mother, preparations were made – the kitten was unweaned so we fed her Cow&Gate milk from a teat pipette, and my mother named her Smokey (Leonora was now deemed bad luck).

Smokes, as she was generally called, became my childhood companion. She was antisocial to all except our family and one or two select friends who visited the house a lot, but she was gorgeous to us. She was often terribly nervous, and we could never have had another cat with her (even though I nearly brought one of my uncle’s kittens home – he had 12 cats at the time), but she even trusted me enough to let me tie my school tie around her neck, and then sat still for long enough for me to take a picture!

Fortunately, she also enjoyed a much longer life than either of the Leonoras. It wasn’t until I was away at college in London that she finally succumbed to some kind of growth in her mouth. We’d had her when I was 7, she died, age 14, when I was 21. Her timing was interesting – my parents had just sold the house we had grown up in – I’m certain she would have been deeply unhappy if she’d had to move. I still keep a picture of her in my purse today. It’s terribly battered and faded, but I love it anyway.

Again, there was a decision not to have any more cats. We children had flown the nest and my parents were making a new start. However, when my mum heard about 2 kittens, living on the farm next door to my stepgrandparents’ house that were due to be drowned, I and my stepsister were dispatched in the car to collect them.

Ebony and Ivory (as they were eventually called - some of the ruder alternatives having been vetoed by my mum) were joined a couple of years later by their little half-brother Felix (named after Mendelssohn since I was working on my D.Phil. on Mendelssohn’s String Quartets at the time). Felix had been found foraging on a compost heap by my stepgrandfather and rescued from almost certain drowning.

I must have been absolutely besotted with little Ivory – I’d never have let anyone else walk on my viola!!

Sadly Ebony died about 18 months ago. Here’s one of my favourite pictures of him, when he was in his prime.

Ivory (who is now rather elderly and not in great health) and Felix (who remains in good shape) still live with my mother. She says she’ll never have another cat when they go, but I’m not 100% convinced! Kittens under bushes and on compost heaps will always need rescuing.

In the meantime, I’ve both inherited my mother’s soft spot for the furry felines and married someone who has a similar soft spot. It is about time for you to be introduced to our feline family. I had originally thought that I’d introduce them all at once, in a single blog post, but, on reflection, that might make for a rather lengthy post, so I hope to give them each their little moment of glory over the next few weeks. Watch this space!

Saturday, 29 August 2009

On My 5000th Tweet

This week I reached a bit of a milestone in my online life. I tweeted for the 5000th time!

As I’m a bit of a fan of nice round numbers, I wanted to mark the occasion with something special, rather than just going on about what I’m having for supper, or complaining about the weather or exclaiming LOL, which seems to be what I usually do on twitter! Those of you who were here at the beginning may recall that I used my 2000th tweet to announce the arrival of this blog! Then again, you may have better things to use your brains for!!

So, here, in all its glory, is my 5000th tweet:

TWEET 5000 fivethousand cinqmille funftausend cincomil cinquemila pěttisíc pięćtysięcy pettisuća piecitūkstoši ötezren viisituhatta beşbin

I thought I might just say a few words here about the languages I chose to express my 5000ness, and why I chose them.

Cinq mille is French. I love France very much, and, although I’m not exactly fluent in the language, I can generally get by reasonably well. The Wonderspouse and I spent our honeymoon in France; we had a week in Bordeaux and another in Perpignan. In fact, not a year has passed since we were married that we have not been to France, even very briefly.

Funftausend is German. German was the second language (after French) that I learnt at school. I also had to use it quite a lot when I worked on my (sadly, unfinished, after finance cut out) D.Phil. on Mendelssohn’s String Quartets. These days, however, I’m less likely to be reading the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung from the 1800s and more likely to be asking for Wurst!

Cinco mil is Spanish. My Spanish is pretty atrocious really, but I adore Spain. I first went there when a college friend of mine married a Spanish girl in Segovia – their wedding was absolutely stunning. The Wonderspouse generally reckons Spain is his favourite country, particularly the area around Granada. We’ve had several memorable trips there.

Cinquemila is Italian. Italy is so lovely. I first went there with a boyfriend many years ago, and was utterly charmed. I took my Mother to Venice a few years ago, and was charmed again. The Wonderspouse and I have also visited both mainland Italy, and Sicily, where we fell in love with Taormina and were fascinated by Etna!

Pět tisíc is Czech. Czech is another language that I have, in fact, been able to have extremely basic conversations in. I set about learning Czech about 10 years ago, partly because I was interested in Janáček’s music, but mainly because my boyfriend at the time promised to take me to Prague if I did!

Pięć tysięcy is Polish. We first went to Poland simply because the flights were cheap. However, we quite fell in love with the place. I still have ambitions to learn more Polish. We spent some time in Warsaw, some in Katowice, and a magical winter weekend in Gdansk, where we toured the shipyards in freezing conditions – magical and very moving. We’ve also developed a taste for bigos (a kind of stew), and are delighted by the number of Polski skleps now around in Britain.

Pet tisuća is Croatian. Croatia is the location of one of our absolute favourite hotels, the Regent Esplanade in Zagreb. We have been there a couple of times, once for New Year. The hotel is magnificent, the city is delightful – just beware if you are out in the centre of town at midday because they fire a canon each day and the first few times you hear it you jump right out of your skin!

Pieci tūkstoši is Latvian. Latvia to us means Pelmeni, fabulous little dumplings that can be bought in Riga for almost nothing. It also means Rīgas Melnais balzams, one of the most fabulously unctious drinks known to humankind. We spent an increasingly merry evening in the bar of our hotel drinking the delicious blackness, which I swear could cure any cold that ever dared come near!

Ötezren is Hungarian. Our Hungarian adventures got off to a precarious start – the Budapest police tried to fine us a large number of Euros for driving a Czech hire car on the wrong bit of the road! However, we then went to Szeged, which is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. I kid you not. It’s lovely: beautiful fountains, strolling around, sitting on the banks of the Tisza. The language is fiendish difficult though – we never managed more than a few words.

Viisituhatta is Finnish. Believe it or not, I have actually written a letter in Finnish! My cousin married a Finnish girl, and I responded to the wedding invitation in Finnish. Her family were really impressed, but at the same time highly amused, since I had got the cases muddled up and said that my cousin was married to my husband or some such error! Fantastic wedding though, and we enjoyed Finland so much in the summer that we went back in the winter – it was pretty chilly!

Beş bin is Turkish. Turkish makes me think of Istanbul, and an amazing weekend we spent there. Easyjet took us to an airport in the middle of nowhere, and our first challenge was actually to get to our hotel – an amazing journey, which finished by sailing across the Bosphorus. The whole place was magical – we were awakened by the call to prayer each morning and the hotel gave us Lokum (or Turkish Delight) for breakfast. How fabulous!

So that is what my 5000th tweet meant to me. Those are just a handful of the images that those languages conjure up for me. I adore languages, and I adore travel. I certainly hope to write more about my love of both one day.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

On Why I Am Lucky

Two things have prompted this post. First, the Wonderspouse has recently blogged about luck with regard to “making it” as a writer and nearly caused a fight. Secondly, I’ve been reading 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman, who is well worth following on twitter if you don’t already!

I have long had plans to do “a proper blog post” on luck. I get intensely annoyed by people who say “you make your own luck”, because, as far as I define “luck” it is the one thing you cannot make. Usually, when I get annoyed by these people I think of all the bad luck that life has thrown at me or my loved ones. The fact that I am unable to have children is not my fault – it’s bad luck. The fact that my best friend from school got cancer and died when she was 33 was even worse luck for her – she didn’t smoke, eat badly, drink excessively or have relatives who died prematurely, she was simply VERY unlucky. Those who say “you make your own luck” are clearly defining the word very differently from how I define it.

However, since I am not really in argumentative mood at the moment, and am generally feeling reasonably good, I decided that what I’d like to do is list some of the ways in which I feel I’ve been really lucky in life. Richard Wiseman’s book suggests that this might make me feel happier, and I am also acutely aware that although I have, at times, felt terribly unlucky about many things (I do not currently have a career, I have never owned a house, I have no children, and so on), I am in fact very lucky in very many ways. Here are half a dozen of them:

1. To start at the beginning. I was born to parents who, although they had not planned to have me when they did, loved me very much and took great care of me throughout my childhood. I was always warm, clothed, well-cared-for, educated, and loved. My family have also, generally, accepted the choices I have made in my life and taken some interest in them.

2. I was also born into a society where I am relatively free to live as I choose. Many people constantly moan about governments, jobs, houses, and lives. However, I feel very lucky that I live in a place where I am free to study, to work, to vote without fear of bombs, to practice any religion I choose (or, in my case, none at all) and to dress pretty much as I wish.

3. I am incredibly lucky that I have never in my life gone really hungry. Yes, I get a bit peckish if I haven’t had enough breakfast, but I have never known real hunger or real poverty. I have also never been without SOMEWHERE to live even though I have never owned property, and throughout my life I’ve had access to clean safe water, basic medical care, and many other such creature comforts.

4. Life has certainly thrown a few trials at me: mental illness, infertility, financial difficulties, and, at one time, an abusive boyfriend, to name a few of them. However, I’ve always been lucky enough to have family and good friends around me to pick up the pieces, by offering either practical help or emotional support.

5. I also count myself lucky in that I can derive huge pleasure from music, intellectual work, reading, art, food, and other such pursuits. I feel lucky both that most of the time I have the mental capacity to enjoy those things (I know what it is like to be without them when I am severely depressed), fully functioning senses with which to enjoy them, and that I live in a world where they are freely available to me.

6. I am very lucky to have a husband who adores me and puts me at the centre of his world. Many people never find such a person, and not for want of trying. As a couple we are also lucky that our parents were all happy about our choices of partner, and that we have not had to cope with either cultural or religious issues within our marriage. Furthermore, when we do encounter difficulties in life, we seem to manage to cope much better as a couple than either of us did before we were together.

So, those are just some of the reasons why I am lucky. All of those pieces of luck were happy accidents, things that I did not “make” for myself. I just got lucky. I’m not saying that life is all about sitting and waiting for happy accidents to happen – I certainly do believe that putting some effort into life can often reap very great rewards and that being able to take advantage of opportunities when they arise is fabulous. However, as I define the word, “luck” is the one thing that cannot be made. To me, luck is the hand that is dealt by life. The bit that can be “made” is the way that hand is played!

Thursday, 20 August 2009

On Simplifying Goals

I love lists. I love making lists; I love organizing lists; I love making lists of lists. In fact, I can spend so much time making lists and setting goals that I actually run out of time to DO anything. Although sometimes my goal-setting and list-making is really useful and productive, sometimes it turns into the most massive procrastination exercise ever!

Most months I make a list of goals I hope to achieve, and a little chart with boxes to colour in when I have achieved those goals (yes, I like colouring in little boxes in felt-tipped pen, so that’s what I do – I am still motivated by stickers and colouring books even though I left primary school decades ago).

However, the goal-setting has recently reached a point where it is totally unmanageable. I cannot walk daily, go to the gym, swim, do yoga, mend all the ailing clothes, figure out what a possible future career could be, read all the books on my list, do every question on my maths course, learn French, Polish, Finnish (and a whole host of other languages), learn bass guitar, improve my piano playing, practice my viola regularly, organize the house, read all the blogs I want to read, file the zillions of e-mails that seem to appear, write my own blog posts, set up databases for all my correspondence, etc. etc. etc. while still going to work, maintaining my (slightly dodgy at the moment) mental health and doing all the normal things that a human being has to do in the course of daily life.

Furthermore, I have reached the point where I’m spending more time colouring in little squares on my progress chart than I am doing the things I’m charting!

So, this week, I simplified my list. I filed all the complicated charts away neatly in a nice stripey ringbinder and have stuck my new, streamlined, list on the wall above my desk. It reads:




That’s it! Just four little words, rather than a whole page of text referring to hours spent, lengths swum, words learnt, e-mails sorted and so on. So, for the next couple of months I shall try, each day, to concentrate on these four things only.

Maths will probably be quite easy, since I have an exam to work for in approximately 2 months time. Instead of my usual “panic as the assignment becomes due” way of working, I shall try to work daily on my two remaining assignments and exam revision. I shall also keep reminding myself that it is more important to do some work than to do all work perfectly. A maths degree with a 2:1 result is much better than a maths degree I have abandoned because I’m not 100% confident I shall get a First!

Viola will also, I suspect, not be too difficult. I am currently working on several new pieces and also revising some old favourites, so I feel quite motivated in the viola direction at the moment. Fortunately, I also play the viola well enough that I can get satisfaction from playing it quite quickly – unlike the piano, which constantly frustrates me because I am such a poor pianist.

Yoga will, I suspect, be the most difficult, but probably the most “good for me”. I used to practice regularly and liked very much being able to stand on my head and touch my toes (neither of which I can currently do). I never reached the “putting my left leg behind my right ear while chanting ‘om’” stage, and don’t anticipate being able ever to do so, but it would be quite nice to be a bit bendier again!

Admin will probably be the easiest of all, since I have a reasonably good system set up. I shall focus on the day-to-day admin tasks rather than getting sidetracked into building elaborate databases and spreadsheets – that sort of thing can wait until after the maths exam!

So there we are. Simplified goals with a simplified colouring-in chart to match. Just three boxes per day: maths, viola and yoga (admin is its own box). The colouring in will be quicker, I shall (maybe) be less distracted by other things if I focus on these four, and I might actually make some significant progress towards my long-term goals over the next couple of months!

Of course, if I fail, then I will have failed at only four things, unlike the twenty or so on the previous lists! That, in itself, will surely be a success!

I think the glass must be half-full this morning!

Friday, 14 August 2009

On Getting A Bit Muddy

In a recent article, the Wonderspouse described how, as a result of reading a second-hand newspaper, we became fans of The Boxer Rebellion, a rather fabulous indie band and their amazing music. Most of the time, being a Boxer Rebellion fan is not especially difficult: downloading albums and listening to them involves spending a small amount of money and a large amount of time; and travelling to gigs, buying merchandise, chatting to the band, and having an AWESOME and BRILLIANT time involves a slightly larger financial outlay and a little bit of driving. However, just over a week ago, being Boxer Rebellion fans led the Wonderspouse and me into an entirely new, and much muddier, world.

Like every good fan, I like to follow the band on twitter and facebook and check out their website from time to time in order to see what they’re up to at the moment. A while ago I noticed that they were playing at a festival in Derbyshire called Y-Not, and, since we were getting Boxer Rebellion withdrawal symptoms, having had a whole month pass without seeing them live, I booked us a couple of day tickets for the Saturday. Day tickets are wonderful things for those of us who are not into camping!

When Saturday morning dawned, we became even more certain we weren’t into camping. We headed up the M1 into torrential rain, which, admittedly, eased as we arrived at the site. However, it was replaced by a soupy mist, almost concealing the entire festival. The car park didn’t look very inviting either, but, when we said we weren’t staying overnight, we were directed to a small bit of road by a hedge, which was a relief.

And then the mud began. Because of an absence of wellies in our lives (did I mention that we’re really NOT outdoor people?), we were wearing very old shoes, which instantly became saturated with mud. We slithered into the main festival site, where we collected programmes and t-shirts, before peering through the mist to see what might be going on.

By this point I was experiencing quite severe culture shock and wasn’t terribly sure what to do with myself. So, for an hour or so we wandered between the main stage and the acoustic tent (partly dependent upon which band was playing and partly upon the intensity of the rain). On the stage we heard SOS, Zambula (whose African sound and cheer were in stark contrast to the surroundings), and The Moutown Project, and in the tent we listened to Rugosa Nevada (who we really enjoyed and are delighted to have discovered), Cara Roxanne (charming, with beautiful guitars) and This Town Needs Guns. Rather charmingly, a man in a kilt came on between sets, provided friendly banter and encouraged us all to take care of each other since it was a bit slippy outside!!

At some point we took a short break to eat jacket potato (me) and burger with chips (him). I bought a warm hat and the Wonderspouse bought a couple of shirts from one of the stalls, and it was at this point that we ended up in the tent described in my previous blog post. We also had our photo taken, and the girl with the guillotine made it into a keyring for us. Then we did a trial run of our walk back to the car (in preparation for making the same trip in the dark later) leaving our t-shirts in the boot, and called my Mum (at whose house we were staying that night) to warn her that we were a little bit muddy and she should leave us a towel on the doormat!

We were back in front of the main stage in order to see first Max Raptor (who were really cool), Tellison and then Esser. I’d already become interested in Esser after checking out the myspace site, but was totally unprepared for the impromptu entertainments during the set.

First, there was the fancy dress. The festival had a nautical fancy dress theme, so there were many people dressed as boats, sailors, jellyfish and the like. There was also a lovely couple who had come as “Port” and “Starboard”: she was wearing a dress with a bottle of Taylor’s on it, and he had a cork noticeboard with sparkly stars on it hanging round his neck!

Then there was the mud. There had already been a lot of mudsliding going on, but by the time of Esser’s set it had turned into full-scale mud wrestling. (Ben) Esser, who had stepped off his tour bus about 15 minutes prior to appearing on stage went through a brief period of the same sort of culture shock that I had experienced earlier in the day before incorporating the whole thing into his set, commentating on the man trying to have his wicked way with a giant, mud covered, inflatable whale, and urging a group of gents dressed in immaculate white sailor uniforms (how DID they stay so white for so long?) to wrestle with a completely mud-covered man wearing the remains of a cocktail dress!

In addition to the commentary, Esser gave us a brilliant set, which I very much enjoyed. The next set, by the Bombay Bicycle Club, was also fabulous – I would have danced joyously to both sets if I hadn’t been standing up to my ankles in mud!

The period between those two sets took on a slightly surreal air. The night was cooling, and many had, by this time, lost their clothes. An extremely drunken young man ambled aimlessly around, shivering a little and wearing only boxer shorts and a plastic bag, before staggering off to meet his comrades. Another was going round trying to hug anyone and everyone while his (much more sober) mate ran after him shouting “Josh, Josh, don’t do it! He’s a stranger and he might not want to get muddy!” At this point we decided a little supper was in order so went off to discover some sausage and chips (both of us). I was quite impressed with the standard of the ketchup!!

Then, as darkness fell, the star attraction (with apologies to Noah & The Whale) arrived on stage. Just before the set began we bumped into a man who also unzipped his coat to reveal a Boxer Rebellion t-shirt!! The fans were there! Like us, he’d been at Scala, and his female companion had come over from Germany for the festival. We suddenly felt very at home.

As “Flashing Red Light Means Go” started up, I forgot the mud, the cold, the state of my feet and knew that it had all been well worth it. By the time Todd started the fabulous guitar part of “Semi-Automatic” I was totally lost to the world of mud and instead tuned my ears into the 3-bar structure of the riff. The familiar sounds, the magic combination of the four of them, just BRILLIANT!

After the set, which, for us, WAS the headline, we chatted again with our fellow fans before they headed off to find a tractor to tow them out of the car park. We moved away from the stage up the hill and stayed just long enough to hear the opening of Noah & The Whale’s set – I might have stayed longer, but we were ready to get going by that time. The set was clearly audible as we walked back to the car to start the journey back to my Mum’s house (where the hall was lined with newspapers in anticipation of the mud we would bring, and a bubble bath had already been run for us – thanks Mum!!).

So, that was how we got a bit muddy! We’ve now lived the festival mud experience and survived to tell the tale!! Furthermore, Y-Not turned out to be a great festival overall: really friendly with some fabulous bands. We’ve booked to see The Boxer Rebellion again – but I’ve researched the venues thoroughly and I don’t think either of them is likely to be muddy! Only two more things remain to be said. One is that the Wonderspouse has written up his own account of the day – shorter and more amusing than this one – you can find it here! The other is that although while we slept that night the washing fairy sorted out our muddy clothes, it took 3 days and a lot of scraping to remove the last remnants of Derbyshire field from under my toenails, and both pairs of shoes were declared beyond help, having met a noble end in the name of excellent music!!!

Monday, 10 August 2009

On A Bizarre Situation

I gratefully squelched into the largish tent. Absolutely everything was damp and steamy, and the atmosphere smelled strongly of straw. As I leaned against the metal bar in front of me, I took in my surroundings.

To my left, a man dressed as a giant banana was dancing enthusiastically to an African drumbeat performed by a group in colourful clothing. To my right, an assorted group of very muddy people were taking part in a “circus skills” workshop, hula-hooping, juggling and doing things with sticks. Straight ahead, a girl was tapping away at a laptop and using her sweater to wipe mud and condensation off a guillotine.

To be quite honest, if I had read those words two weeks ago I would have imagined they were describing a dream caused by a severe overdose of Cheddar, Stilton and Brie. However, no amount of pinching would have woken me up – this was real!

So, how did I find myself in this somewhat bizarre situation?

All will be revealed in the next blog post! Watch this space!

Thursday, 6 August 2009

On Bedspreads and Whizzers

As those of you who read the last post will know, this week it has been our seventh Wedding Anniversary, so I thought you might bear just a little more blogging on the subject of marriage (it is in the subtitle after all). This year my Mum gave us the most marvellous present – a bedspread she had handmade for us, using fabric left over from making my wedding dress and the dresses of my six bridesmaids – so, seven colours in all. Here is the bedspread, installed and looking very splendid!
However, as most of you reading this won’t actually have been at the wedding since I didn’t even know many of you back then, I thought I’d fill in just a little background for you. What follows is an edited extract from an article I wrote for our wedding brochure.


“Oh, how marvellous, a rainbow wedding!” exclaimed one of the guests when I told her what my wedding colour scheme was going to be. Indeed, the colours you see before you are the colours of the rainbow (as close as I could get them in readily available fabrics and ribbons), but my reasons for choosing these colours go beyond simply wishing to create a joyful and flamboyant effect with lots of bridesmaids!

First, red is not the traditional colour for a wedding dress. However, I have never even considered getting married wearing white (or ivory or cream or magnolia etc). Those of you who know me well know that I have always loved red, that I feel comfortable wearing red, and that red is the typical ‘Me’ colour. Furthermore, a red dress is infinitely more practical than a white one – it will cope with beer, red wine and general grubbiness much better and, once the train and sleeves are removed, will be a super concert dress and ball gown for many years to come.

Red is also the colour of the ruby in my engagement ring. Just as I was always going to have a red wedding dress, so I was also going to have a ruby engagement ring (the ruby in this case is flanked by two diamonds). Ruby is also my birthstone.

Furthermore, I have always loved the different colours of the spectrum (the rainbow) and spent many hours as a child colouring in rainbow patterns and making ‘whizzers’. Whizzers were discs of card, divided up like a pie, with each slice coloured in a different colour of the rainbow. When they were spun very fast on a piece of string, they looked (almost) white. Amazing!!!

The mystery of how whizzers worked was solved when I did O-level physics. I learnt how a glass prism splits white light into its constituent colours (in just the same way as rain splits up sunlight to make a rainbow). The different colours that make up white light are refracted (bent) to different extents as they pass from air to glass (or air to water). Incidentally, if you ever need to know which end of the spectrum is refracted most on passing from one medium to another, remember: ‘red refracts rubbish’ and ‘blue bends best’!

So my second reason for the colour scheme comes from my interest in the colours of the spectrum. Although my dress is red, my bridesmaids are wearing the other colours of the rainbow. If we could be made into a ‘whizzer’ we would indeed create traditional wedding white!


And here we all are, not being whizzed round (thank goodness) but posing for a photograph!

Monday, 3 August 2009

On Potted Meat

Yesterday there was a lovely aroma penetrating our house all afternoon. It was the deliciously tasty aroma of meat cooking. Not only were we roasting a joint of lamb for supper (well, when I say “we” I mean the Wonderspouse – I don’t really cook), but the Anniversary Potted Meat was simmering away on the stove.

Today is our seventh Wedding Anniversary! Seven years ago about now, I was watching my newly-married Husband and my Mother throwing bits of salmon across the marquee so that the ever-social Ivory, who joined in happily with our wedding celebrations, could have a snack. I, meanwhile, kept sneaking off, borrowing my viola player’s instrument and joining in with the general chamber music going on in the corner. It was definitely a day to remember – and one day I’ll get round to writing a full blog post about it! For the time being, here is a picture of us with Ivory:
So, why do we have Anniversary Potted Meat? And more to the point, why do we always eat Potted Meat for BREAKFAST on our Wedding Anniversary?

Well, this most unusual tradition really started with a very usual tradition – the one that says that it’s bad luck for the groom and bride to meet on the morning of their wedding (or something like that). Our wedding was a sort of semi-traditional one and this was one of the traditions to which we stuck.

However, since neither of us had any beliefs that precluded it, and since we were way too broke to pay two lots of rent simultaneously, we had been living together for several months before our wedding since the leases on our previous flats had expired. And we rather liked it. In fact, we so liked waking up and having morning tea & coffee together that we really weren’t looking forward to the wedding morning terribly much. He would be in a budget hotel on the outskirts of Doncaster on his own and I would be dealing with hordes of relatives & bridesmaids, having spent the night on the sofabed in my Dad’s study.

So we decided to do something about it. If we couldn’t have breakfast together, we would at least have the same breakfast at the same time, and imagine we were together. After a fairly short discussion, we decided upon Potted Meat, partly because it’s absolutely delicious, but mainly because it was portable, kept well for a while out of the fridge, and was something a little bit different and special.

The Wonderspouse-to-be made one batch of Potted Meat, divided it into two, and we had a jar each. We also bought a few bread rolls and divided them into two batches, then set off for Doncaster (my hometown, where we got married). We then parted, having set a time for breakfast the next morning.

And the next morning, at the appointed hour, in the midst of bridesmaids, relatives and goodness-knows-what-else going on, I sat down with a slightly squashed bread roll and a jar of potted meat and proceeded to eat my last breakfast as a single girl. Delicious it was too, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Granted, two out of my six bridesmaids were vegetarian and couldn’t quite believe what I was up to. My Mum worried that eating such a breakfast on the morning of my wedding would “make me poorly”. But, oblivious to all of this, I sat, probably the calmest person in the room, eating my Potted Meat, knowing that the nearly-Wonderspouse would be doing the same.

Needless to say, it didn’t make me ill, and I was, in fact, grateful to have had a substantial breakfast, especially as we later had to stand and smile for photographs so had limited opportunity to get our hands on the nibbles our guests were enjoying.

So, every year, on our Wedding Anniversary, we have Potted Meat. He makes it, to the same, now traditional, recipe, and we eat it for breakfast. That is how we celebrate our Anniversary - no cards, no flowers, but, for us, the most romantic breakfast we could possibly imagine! Here is the recipe, in the Wonderspouse’s own words, followed by some pictures of this year’s batch in its various stages of preparation and eating!

In a saucepan, fry smoked bacon in duck fat until crispy, then add diced beef, crushed juniper berries and a bay leaf. Put the lid on the saucepan and leave for about two and a half hours, after which time the juices from the meat will have reabsorbed. At this stage, take out the bay leaves and crush the meat with a wooden spoon until the fibres pull apart. Add a small amount of high quality homemade stock every half hour for the next hour and a half, then leave for a final half hour until the filaments of meat are moist but not swimming in liquid. At this stage, transfer the contents to a jar and leave to cool.
Happy Anniversary Wonderspouse, and thank you for all the Potted Meat!!

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

On Bunfighting and Netiquette

In On Being A Bit Too Busy, I explained that I would be short of time for blogging this week. However, I'm lucky enough to have a fabulous husband, The Wonderspouse (also known as @agnieszkasshoes), who has written a blog post for me and is therefore the first guest blogger I've had on my site. I've read his post several times, and, being a girl of relatively simple mind, am still not 100% sure what it's all about. Maybe my unwillingness to throw buns renders me a little confused about the whole business? However, I am extremely grateful to him for writing it, and I hope you will enjoy it!


I would very much like to express my sincerest thanks to ViolaMaths for allowing me a little guest blogging. But as I’ve been given a strict 750 word limit, I’m afraid I don’t have the space. Nor will I abuse netiquette by plugging either my new book, my writers’ collective, the article I’ve had published in a music journal today, or my Indie download festival.

I’m regularly to be heard in the less salubrious salons of the interweb shouting “bunfight” over the general melee. Those who look up from their beer, downloads, or porn either come along to watch or ask “What on earth’s a bunfight?” Well, this seems like a perfect place to explain. So, without further ado, an insight into a rather odd English custom, and a couple of associated musings on netiquette and trolls.

I was at one of the less progressive Higher Education Institutions in the UK, where I met ViolaMaths. The very same LPHEI, in fact, where a certain bespectacled wizard gets his five a day. Whilst dinners weren’t accompanied by a nearly headless ghost, they were accompanied by bread rolls. Along with an injunction not to begin eating said bread rolls before Latin grace (which always seemed to be late). On pain of death by lamprey or something.

There were three strategies for dealing with the bread roll conundrum. The first was the surreptitious nibble. Then there was the butter-sculpting, warming the little foil packs of butter until it squirted out from the folds at either end and landed on your seat. Far and away the most fun, though, was the Bunfight (I guess “rollfight” just doesn’t sound right). A Bunfight isn’t the Bugsy Malone of a full-on foodfight. It’s more subtle, more gentle, less damaging to the dry-cleaning bill. It involves surreptitious lobbing from a hand position below the edge of the table at trajectories designed to bamboozle any attempt to hunt down the offender, and scarcely results in injuries more severe than a case of crumbs on the collar that could be mistaken for a bad case of dandruff.

All of which sounds rather Jennings and Darbishire, but actually makes sense of my Interwebby clarion call.

I love a good online debate. No, I’m like Pete Doherty in a poppyfield at the thought of a bit of contentious banter. So when I read a tweet about a blog post on the future of publishing, or the state of the modern novel, or the morality of chaptelising Sauternes pudding wine, I’m over at the speed of a click (which isn’t actually very quick on our connection, but you get the point).

As I said, I love a good debate. A bunfight that’s full of skill and bamboozlement, with a whiff of the anti-establishment and a clearly defined sense of rules. Something you come away from, laughing with your opposition and sporting only a few crumbs on your clothes.

Unfortunately there are those out there who mistake a bunfight for the full pie and mash up. Who are out to prove their point and belittle their opposition, to besmear them with gravy and ketchup and send them packing to their parents to explain. It’s a fine line to draw between a bunfight and a foodfight, and the Internet is a very hard place to draw it. Forum and blog discussions have a rhythm, a (to mix musical metaphors) sense of crescendo. They get us worked up. We’re not satisfied with throwing a bun; we want to throw the butter; and fling a bit of soup, and before we know it the house port is winging its way across the dining room like a beer glass in a moshpit.

This never happened with real-life bunfights. Before anything escalated someone would eventually get up and say grace, the tension would lift, the flour would settle to the floor, and we’d get on with the important business of eating. Which I think is such a perfect metaphor I don’t need to spell it out.

I come across a lot of people during bunfights. We exchange opinions that vary from forthright to downright gobby. But all of the people I’ve crossed swords with have gone on to become at the least nodding acquaintances in the land of the literary blog, and in some cases good friends who allow me to guest blog.

There endeth the parable for today. A bunfight is a wonderful thing, and an arena for the making of excellent friends, but it should never be allowed to become a foodfight, which is a very bad thing; and a terrible waste of food.

Monday, 27 July 2009

On Being A Bit Too Busy

When I started this blog it was my intention to post once a week. However, I seem to have fallen into a twice weekly pattern, posting a "main blog" midweek (usually Wednesday or Thursday) and a shorter post sometime around the weekend. Maybe some of you have become accustomed to these "slightly more frequent than originally intended" posts, so here I am.

However, I'm really rather busy at the moment. Having been out of circulation being "a bit bonkers" recently (check out the blog post "On Being a Bit Bonkers" if you're a new blog reader - all will be explained), I'm now in a race to catch up on everything I should have been doing during the last couple of months.

Last week I got over the "going back to work after a month off" hurdle, and I'm now frantically trying to submit as much of my long-overdue maths assignment as I can. Furthermore, the co-author of the textbook on which I'm working elected not to ask for an extension from the publishers, so, in between going back to work and doing a week's worth of OU work each day, I'm also trying to read and correct the (almost finished) manuscript before it goes in the post at the end of the week. Hmmm!

I'm also dreaming of viola practice (Morton Feldman's "The Viola in My Life" is calling to me), piano practice (and calling the piano tuner) and bass practice (my fingers will never toughen up if I don't practice), not to mention the fact that the car has to go in for its MOT this week, which is likely to hit both my schedule and my wallet much too hard. Ow!

So, blogging is going to have to take a back seat in my life temporarily (and I'm not going to think about the contents of the last two paragraphs - it's simply too frightening). However, there will be a midweek post this week. It'll probably go up on Thursday. I don't yet know what it will be about, so watch this space!!

In the meantime, I realise that Music and Maths have featured in this blog, but the Moggies haven't really stuck their exceptionally curious noses in for a sniff yet. So, as a gentle introduction to our little feline family, here's a picture of them at their quietest and most well-behaved:
Right, back to work now! Maybe one day life will return to normal, whatever normal may be! Do let me know if you find out!

Thursday, 23 July 2009

On Delta-Winged Beauty

During the late 1970s, my Dad used to take me and my little brother to RAF Finningley to see the Air Display. We lived within fairly comfortable walking distance of the airbase, so it was an easy day out. I don’t remember a huge amount about the planes we saw, or what really went on – I was quite young at the time. However, I do have two very vivid memories from that time. One was owning a polystyrene Boeing 747 which didn’t fly very well, and the other was hearing a very particular noise coming from a very large triangular-shaped aeroplane. That plane was, of course, the Avro Vulcan and I loved it!

By 1982 I was a bit more aware of the world around me and was starting to take an interest in news and current affairs. I was also still interested in aeroplanes. I distinctly remember the morning that my Mum came into my bedroom, woke me up and told me that we were now at war. The Falklands conflict had been building for weeks and I was just old enough to be fascinated by what was going on. The notion of “war” was also something rather new to me – all I had previously known was that it mostly involved powdered egg, Anderson shelters, and blowing up German dams.

So I followed this new war to see what would happen. The eggs remained resolutely normal, but there was a lot of talk on the news of other exotic sounding things. Brian Hanrahan counted Harrier Jump Jets, Mrs Thatcher made a lot of fuss about sinking The General Belgrano, and I discovered there was an island in the middle of the Atlantic which had an airport called Wideawake (which I thought was a rather nice name). I also remember that they bombed the airport at Port Stanley – and the plane they used was the amazing delta-winged Vulcan that I loved seeing so much at the airshows! I was impressed!

A few years later I became a teenager, stopped going to airshows with my Dad, and didn’t take so much notice of aeroplanes.

I started to get seriously interested in them again when I first went in one. When I was in the sixth form my parents agreed to let me go on a school trip to Russia if I saved up half the money from my Saturday job. So it was that at age 17 I boarded an Aeroflot jet bound for Leningrad and flew for the very first time. AND IT WAS MAGICAL! I had always loved looking up at clouds, and now they were below me. WOW!

Fast forward a few more years, and I made a new friend. He too was passionate about aeroplanes and we started to go to the Royal International Air Tattoo together, which took me right back to my youth. However, by this time, there were no Vulcans. Admittedly, the B1Bs and the BBMF Lancaster were pretty cool (it’s always the bombers I love the most), but sadly the Vulcans were no longer around, having done their last displays in the early 1990s.

One year my friend bought me a trial flying lesson for my birthday – one of the best birthday presents I’ve ever had. He even got me the deluxe version, which included aerobatics – barrel rolls, aileron rolls, inside loops, and several others. I became even more keen on planes!
He also bought me an Airfix kit so I could build a model Vulcan. Inevitably I chose a bomber, and of all the bombers available I selected the wonderful plane from my youth. I bought all the paints and bits needed to complete the model, but, as these things do, it sat in my wardrobe and gathered dust for several years.
I did eventually start building though. About half-way through construction something else happened; Rowland White’s book Vulcan 607 was published. It was, of course, a must-read for me, and I dropped everything and read it avidly. There’s no doubt that it’s a great story, and greater because it’s true. However, given that I half-remembered some bits of it from my youth, was already a big fan of the Vulcan, and was in the middle of building a model Vulcan it resonated even more strongly. The characters in the book, all real people, instantly became heroes of mine, especially the captain of XM607: Flt Lt Martin Withers. Who could fail to be mesmerized by someone who had flown a Vulcan through the Grand Canyon on his way to Red Flag?

After reading the book, I hastily went to the model shop to buy dark sea grey paint in order to camouflage my model for stormy South Atlantic skies. Here is my finished model, and a view of the grey underside:
But while I was building a 1:72 model, some much more dedicated and much more skilled people were working on restoring the real thing. I had previously seen their stands at RIAT, bought their merchandise, and given small amounts of money to the cause. Here is the “nose” which appeared at Cottesmore in 2001:
I can’t remember when I started seriously believing that they would do it and that a Vulcan would fly again. I started to follow progress avidly from around 2005, first on the news and then on the internet. The whole story is much too long and much too full of twists and turns to describe here, but if you want to find out more, a short history can be found by clicking here!

My personal part of the story continues on 18th October 2007, when the restored Vulcan XH558 made her first flight. I watched, spellbound, on the television, and hoped that she would be at Fairford for RIAT 2008. However, RIAT 2008 was not to be. Torrential rain in the days leading up to the show forced the cancellation of the whole show (scroll to the bottom of the link). My friend and I consulted our diaries and looked at the flying schedule for the Vulcan. We couldn’t make anything fit. Work commitments, family commitments, pre-booked holidays. Sadness & disappointment ensued and I tried very hard NOT to think about Vulcans.

Maybe 2009 would be better? By February it didn’t appear so. The Vulcan to the Sky website posted grim news, and my hopes of ever seeing a Vulcan fly again plummeted. Nevertheless, RIAT 2009 remained on the calendar – the airshow would still be fun without a Vulcan wouldn’t it?

After spending a week nervously watching the weather, I got up at 5.15 on Saturday morning and set off to collect my friend and head to Fairford. The sun was out, the sky was cloudy, but not excessively so, the queues were not too severe that early in the morning.

I had also been following @XH558 on Twitter all week so knew she had arrived at Fairford. She was the first plane we saw as we drove in to the car park. Looking GOOD! Vulcan village was in full swing, so I bought a bag full of Vulcan merchandise. We then went over to admire XH558 in all her beauty:
Having parked ourselves at the “right hand” end of the runway, nearest to XH558, we settled down to enjoy the flying displays. Then, mid-afternoon, we heard a familiar engine noise just behind us. Abandoning our stuff we headed over to watch. Lights were on, chocks were being removed. Then she started to taxi. The crowd broke into spontaneous applause, and we hurried back to our spot by the runway. Here she is, firing up for take-off:
Already trembling with excitement as she left the ground, I was thrilled to hear that Martin Withers was at the controls. How much more exciting could this get? I tried VERY hard to concentrate on whatever else was flying while XH558 headed for Cosford to do a fly past, before returning to display for us. And what a display it was. Throttling up to full power so we could hear the might of the engines, opening bomb doors, banking and turning, and looking SO beautiful, silhouetted against the grey clouds:
Then she came in to land. A majestic sight, airbrakes deployed. Just stunning! More applause from the crowd.
As she taxied back to her own special “parking spot”, all eyes continued to focus on her, even though another display had just started. She is such a beautiful and mesmerizing aeroplane.

Before we started heading for home we went over to take one last look at XH558, now fully parked up again. As we approached, I saw that the crew were there, and were signing autographs. And there was Martin Withers!! Somewhat starstruck, I approached him, told him he was my hero, and he signed my programme! Perfect end to a perfect day. WOW!

All that remains to say is thank you so much for reading another lengthy blog post. If you can bear just one more Vulcan picture, here is one that one of my wonderful tweeps @pbiggs sent to me of XH558 leading a B52 down Fairford’s runway on the Sunday:
And, from me, a BIG thank you to everyone at Vulcan To The Sky. Your hard work and dedication through difficulties and terrible funding problems is so very much appreciated. The Vulcan may initially have been created as an instrument of war, but it now represents, to me, a supreme human achievement. It is also an exceptionally beautiful aeroplane.