Saturday, December 31, 2005

100 things we didn't know this time last year

(courtesy of the BBC news website)

1. The Queen has never been on a computer, she told Bill Gates as she awarded him an honorary knighthood.

2. Mohammed is now one of the 20 most popular names for boys born in England and Wales.

3. While it's an offence to drop litter on the pavement, it's not an offence to throw it over someone's garden wall.

4. An average record shop needs to sell at least two copies of a CD per year to make it worth stocking, according to Wired magazine.

5. Nicole Kidman is scared of butterflies. "I jump out of planes, I could be covered in cockroaches, I do all sorts of things, but I just don't like the feel of butterflies' bodies," she says.

6. WD-40 dissolves cocaine - it has been used by a pub landlord to prevent drug-taking in his pub's toilets.

7. Baboons can tell the difference between English and French. Zoo keepers at Port Lympne wild animal park in Kent are having to learn French to communicate with the baboons which had been transferred from Paris zoo.

8. Devout Orthodox Jews are three times as likely to jaywalk as other people, according to an Israeli survey reported in the New Scientist. The researchers say it's possibly because religious people have less fear of death.

9. The energy used to build an average Victorian terrace house would be enough to send a car round the Earth five times, says English Heritage.

10. Humans can be born suffering from a rare condition known as "sirenomelia" or "mermaid syndrome", in which the legs are fused together to resemble the tail of a fish.

11. One in 10 Europeans is allegedly conceived in an Ikea bed.

12. Until the 1940s rhubarb was considered a vegetable. It became a fruit when US customs officials, baffled by the foreign food, decided it should be classified according to the way it was eaten.

13. Prince Charles broke with an 80-year tradition by giving Camilla Parker Bowles a wedding ring fashioned from Cornish gold, instead of the nugget of Welsh gold that has provided rings for all royal brides and grooms since 1923.

14. It's possible for a human to blow up balloons via the ear. A 55-year-old factory worker from China reportedly discovered 20 years ago that air leaked from his ears, and he can now inflate balloons and blow out candles.

15. Lionesses like their males to be deep brunettes.

16. The London borough of Westminster has an average of 20 pieces of chewing gum for every square metre of pavement.

17. Bosses at Madame Tussauds spent £10,000 separating the models of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston when they separated. It was the first time the museum had two people's waxworks joined together.

18. If all the Smarties eaten in one year were laid end to end it would equal almost 63,380 miles, more than two-and-a-half times around the Earth's equator.

19. The = sign was invented by 16th Century Welsh mathematician Robert Recorde, who was fed up with writing "is equal to" in his equations. He chose the two lines because "noe 2 thynges can be moare equalle".

20. The UK's first mobile phone call was made 20 years ago this year, when Ernie Wise rang the Vodafone head office, which was then above a curry shop in Newbury.

21. One person in four has had their identity stolen or knows someone who has.

22. The length of a man's fingers can reveal how physically aggressive he is, scientists say.

23. In America it's possible to subpoena a dog.

24. The 71m packets of biscuits sold annually by United Biscuits, owner of McVitie's, generate 127.8 tonnes of crumbs.

25. Nelson probably had a broad Norfolk accent.

26. One in four people does not know 192, the old number for directory inquiries in the UK, has been abolished.

27. Only in France and California are under 18s banned from using sunbeds.

28. The British buy the most compact discs in the world - an average of 3.2 per year, compared to 2.8 in the US and 2.1 in France.

29. When faced with danger, the octopus can wrap six of its legs around its head to disguise itself as a fallen coconut shell and escape by walking backwards on the other two legs, scientists discovered.

30. There are an estimated 1,000 people in the UK in a persistent vegetative state.

31. Train passengers in the UK waited a total of 11.5m minutes in 2004 for delayed services.

32. "Restaurant" is the most mis-spelled word in search engines.

33. Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho has only been in an English pub once, to buy his wife cigarettes.

34. The Little Britain wheelchair sketch with Lou and Andy was inspired by Lou Reed and Andy Warhol.

35. The name Lego came from two Danish words "leg godt", meaning "play well". It also means "I put together" in Latin.

36. The average employee spends 14 working days a year on personal e-mails, phone calls and web browsing, outside official breaks, according to employment analysts Captor.

37. Cyclist Lance Armstrong's heart is almost a third larger than the average man's.

38. Nasa boss Michael Griffin has seven university degrees: a bachelor's degree, a PhD, and five masters degrees.

39. Australians host barbecues at polling stations on general election days.

40. An average Briton will spend £1,537,380 during his or her lifetime, a survey from insurer Prudential suggests.

41. Tactically, the best Monopoly properties to buy are the orange ones: Vine Street, Marlborough Street and Bow Street.

42. Britain's smallest church, near Malmesbury, Wiltshire, opens just once a year. It measures 4m by 3.6m and has one pew.

43. The spiciness of sauces is measured in Scoville Units.

44. Rubber gloves could save you from lightning.

45. C3PO and R2D2 do not speak to each other off-camera because the actors don't get on.

46. Driving at 159mph - reached by the police driver cleared of speeding - it would take nearly a third of a mile to stop.

47. Liverpool has 42 cranes redeveloping the city centre.

48. A quarter of the world's clematis come from one Guernsey nursery, where production will top 4.5m plants this year alone.

49. Tim Henman has a tennis court at his new home in Oxfordshire which he has never used.

50. Only 36% of the world's newspapers are tabloid.

51. Parking wardens walk about 15 miles a day.

52. You're 10 times more likely to be bitten by a human than a rat.

53. It takes 75kg of raw materials to make a mobile phone.

54. Deep Throat is reportedly the most profitable film ever. It was made for $25,000 (£13,700) and has grossed more than $600m.

55. Antony Worrall-Thompson swam the English Channel in his youth.

56. The Pyruvate Scale measures pungency in onions and garlic. It's named after the acid in onions which makes cooks cry when cutting them.

57. The man who was the voice of one of the original Daleks, Roy Skelton, also did the voices for George and Zippy in Rainbow.

58. The average guest at a Buckingham Palace garden party scoffs 14 cakes, sandwiches, scones and ice-cream, according to royal accounts.

59. Oliver Twist is very popular in China, where its title is translated as Foggy City Orphan.

60. Newborn dolphins and killer whales don't sleep for a month, according to research carried out by University of California.

61. You can bet on your own death.

62. MPs use communal hairbrushes in the washrooms of the Houses of Parliament.

63. It takes less energy to import a tomato from Spain than to grow them in this country because of the artificial heat needed, according to Defra.

64. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg's home number is listed by directory inquiries.

65. Actor James Doohan, who played Scotty, had a hand in creating the Klingon language that was used in the movies, and which Shakespeare plays were subsequently translated into.

66. The hotter it is, the more difficult it is for aeroplanes to take off. Air passengers in Nevada, where temperatures have reached 120F, have been told they can't fly.

67. Giant squid eat each other - especially during sex.

68. The Very Hungry Caterpillar has sold one copy every minute since its 1969 publication.

69. First-born children are less creative but more stable, while last-born are more promiscuous, says US research.

70. Reebok, which is being bought by Adidas, traces its history back more than 100 years to Bolton.

71. Jimi Hendrix pretended to be gay to be discharged from the US Army.

72. A towel doesn't legally reserve a sun lounger - and there is nothing in German or Spanish law to stop other holidaymakers removing those left on vacant seats.

73. One in six children think that broccoli is a baby tree.

74. It takes a gallon of oil to make three fake fur coats.

75. Each successive monarch faces in a different direction on British coins.

76. The day when most suicides occurred in the UK between 1993 and 2002 was 1 January, 2000.

77. The only day in that time when no-one killed themselves was 16 March, 2001, the day Comic Relief viewers saw Jack Dee win Celebrity Big Brother.

78. One in 18 people has a third nipple.

79. The section of coast around Cleethorpes has the highest concentration of caravans in Europe.

80. Fifty-seven Bic Biros are sold every second - amounting to 100bn since 1950.

81. George Bernard Shaw named his shed after the UK capital so that when visitors called they could be told he was away in London.

82. Former Labour MP Oona King's aunt is agony aunt Miriam Stoppard.

83. Britain produces 700 regional cheeses, more even than France.

84. The actor who plays Mike Tucker in BBC Radio 4's The Archers is the father of the actor who plays Will Grundy.

85. Japanese knotweed can grow from a piece of root the size of pea. And it can flourish anew if disturbed after lying dormant for more than 20 years.

86. Hecklers are so-called because of militant textile workers in Dundee.

87. Pulling your foot out of quicksand takes a force equivalent to that needed to lift a medium-sized car.

88. A single "mother" spud from southern Peru gave rise to all the varieties of potato eaten today, scientists have learned.

89. Spanish Flu, the epidemic that killed 50 million people in 1918/9, was known as French Flu in Spain.

90. Ordinary - not avian - flu kills about 12,000 people in the UK every winter.

91. Croydon has more CCTV cameras than New York.

92. You are 176 times more likely to be murdered than to win the National Lottery.

93. Koalas have fingerprints exactly like humans (although obviously smaller).

94. Bill Gates does not have an iPod.

95. The first traffic cones were used in building Preston bypass in the late 1950s, replacing red lantern paraffin burners.

96. Britons buy about one million pumpkins for Halloween, 99% of which are used for lanterns rather than for eating.

97. The mother of stocky cricketer - and this year's Strictly Come Dancing champion - Darren Gough was a ballet dancer. She helped him with his pivots.

98. Nettles growing on land where bodies are buried will reach a foot higher than those growing elsewhere.

99. The Japanese word "chokuegambo" describes the wish that there were more designer-brand shops on a given street.

100. Musical instrument shops must pay an annual royalty to cover shoppers who perform a recognisable riff before they buy, thereby making a "public performance".

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

'Twas the day after Boxing Day...

... and my daughters are at their father's for a couple of days. I drove them over there earlier today, thinking that I would quite enjoy the peace and quiet, and had every intention of hitting the post-Christmas mess that is my house like a reverse tornado. However, the house is far too quiet and all I've succeeded in doing is falling asleep. My half-hour doze somehow morphed into a three-hour time-warp of a sleep, from which I woke rather Rip-Van-Winkled to the dark and a further covering of snow.

I think I'll take the hint and put the housework on hold until tomorrow. There are a couple of films I fancy watching, a fridge full of tasty leftovers, and a cupboard full of nice bottles of wine. It would of course be nice if friends unexpectedly rang the doorbell later and joined me, but after the hectic couple of days we've just had, a quiet evening in front of the Quiet American will be just fine.

Christmas has been lovely. It wasn't the Christmas I would have planned for: apart from anything else we haven't seen my mother due to my sister's game-playing. I've just gone with the flow, not thought about it and so it hasn't spoilt it. We'll have her over here another time. And I haven't let thoughts about Mr F-M interrupt either. He unexpectedly made contact about a week ago, asking me to make an 130-mile round trip to see him, and when I wouldn't he turned up at my door instead. The saga continues.

Yes, I need a good film or two to occupy me tonight.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

My Favourite Christmas Cake Recipe

With fond memories of Pearse, whose bottle of Jameson's will now never run dry


1 cup of water
1 tsp. baking soda
1 cup of sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 cup of brown sugar
lemon juice
4 large eggs
1 bottle Jameson's
2 cups of dried fruit

Sample the Jameson's to check quality. Take a large bowl, check the
whiskey again. To be sure it is the highest quality, pour one level cup
and drink.


Turn on the electric mixer. Beat one cup of butter in a large fluffy

Add one teaspoon of sugar. Beat again. Make sure the whiskey is still

Try another cup.

Turn off the mixerer. Break 2 leggs and add to the bowl and chuck in the
cup of dried fruit. Mix on the turner. If the fried druit gets stuck in
the beaterers pry it loose with a drewscriver. Sample the whiskey to
check for tonsisticity.

Next, sift two cups of salt. Or something. Who giveshz a ****. Check the

Now sift the lemon juice and strain your nuts. Add one table.

Add a spoon of sugar, or something. Whatever you can find. Greash the
oven and piss in the fridge.

Turn the cake tin 350 defrees. Don't forget to beat off the turner.
Throw the bowl through the fecking window.

Check the whiskey again and go to bed.

May you all have a wonderful Christmas and may your lives be blessed with true & loving friends

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The search for the perfect man (Part One)

In the search for the perfect man that has followed my marital break-up I've acquired a stalker. Not the sort that sits in the dark outside your house to see when the lights go on or off, or follows you to Tesco to see what brand of fabric conditioner you buy, or who pinches your favourite Aubade knickers from the washing line. No, he follows me around online, collecting little electronic pieces of me. I have a virtual stalker. He could very well be reading this now, in which case I'll say: Stop reading now - virtual eavesdroppers seldom read good of themselves!

My VS, as I'll call him, sort of crept into my life rather unexpectedly about a year after my separation. I was involved in a relationship with someone who, I decided, was never going to muster the courage to commit. Yes he was married, though in his words the marriage was "fucked" and still is now. But that's a story for another time. Maybe.

So, I mentally distanced myself and set off to a new horizon. Virtually. That is to say I chatted online to new people, not with any intention of meeting anyone, but rather to while away the hours that had previously been filled with chatting online to Mr Fucked-Marriage. And I started talking to VS, who was vaguely amusing and didn't resort to sending unsolicited penis shots (which seemed to be the norm on one ISP I probably don't need to mention).

Then one weekend when I was at something of a loose end, VS invited me to meet him for a coffee as he'd been stood up (in retrospect by someone a little more discerning than me). He was good company, seemed quite interesting, and was wearing an item of clothing I find irresistible on a man (something which is too sad to reveal now). Ok, so he was a good couple of inches shorter than me (and I'm not particularly tall), one-eyed and dyslexic. Not being one to be prejudiced, these facts in themselves would not be preclusions to a relationship, but combined with the whole package might have been warnings in the way that a plague of frogs would be.

My problem is that I'm generally attracted to men who aren't hide-bound by convention. I like something of the rebel in a man, and it can manifest itself in many ways. As can wierdness, and it's not always intially obvious which it is. Ok, I know it is most of the time, but there are phases in all our lives when we're less discerning than we might normally be. VS was odd, but not in the way he liked to think he was. He liked to think he was eccentric - worshipping Wicca by prancing around his back garden naked at full moon, and keeping an attic full of porn were a couple of his foibles. Actually the porn was very funny. He decided to treat me to a viewing of some choice pieces one evening. Obviously a prequel to some "creative" sex, but it just made me laugh like the proverbial drain, which rather put the dampers on things.

VS was also rather tight-fisted, and lived in a house I positively hated. And he picked fault in me in an oblique way, so that when I challenged him he always countered "But I think you're gorgeous". And rather obsessive. He kept tapes of phone messages from an ex-girlfriend of a year or so before. He even chatted online to Mrs F-M, which shook me a little. So, not my perfect man. Time to move on.

After I broke the news to him the obsessiveness came to the fore. He filled up my answer machine with call after call,
one immediately after the other. He must have put down the phone then remembered something else he had to enlighten me on, so was compelled to ring back again. He also sent me a little short story he'd written, based on me in which the main protagonist (with a gender change to provide anonymity) came to a rather nasty end, drunk and choking on his own vomit, and leaving his poor children to fend for themselves. I ended up screaming at him to "fuck off" down the phone, after he accused me of not leaving him in peace to get on with his life!

This was all about four years ago, but he still resurfaces, sending me little instant messages such as "Talking to you is like talking to crayfish in the Great Ouse". Hmmmm. And sending me emails (to a new email account that he knew nothing about) claiming he satisfies all the criteria in an online dating agency profile I have (for which information he must have done a fair amount of trawling). And sending me recordings of him singing "amusing" songs about dating. I ignore them all, as a response of whatever tone will only encourage.

Still, I suppose the advantage of meeting someone over the ether is that any potential wierdness will remain virtual. I do hope so.

Friday, December 16, 2005

In these Old Lavender Trousers

I know what you're looking at people,
What you've got your eyes on I can tell;
It's these dear old lavender trousers,
Wishing you'd a pair like them as well.
My Grandad left them to me
So I could look a toff,
And I said till I was dead,
I would never take them off.

In these old lavender trousers
I've skipp'd and jump'd and skated,
Laughed and wept, Work'd and slept,
And twice been vaccinated.
I've drunk fourale, I've drunk champagne,
Been up the pole and down a drain,
I won the heart of Mary Jane
In these old lavender trousers!

Late last night I toddled in Lipton's
Everybody yelled "Here's someone big!
Who's that in those lavender trousers?
Hen-e-ry the Eighth or Lipton's Pig?"
I ran round the counter quick,
And when I wasn't seen
Down my legs I stow'd some eggs,
And a roll of margarine

In these old lavender trousers.
But soon I did feel shocking!
I turned green, the margarine
Was running down my stocking.
Lipton called a man in blue,
Then all the eggs were hatching too
All the little chicks went "Cock-a-doodle-doo!"
In these old lavender trousers.

Once when I was staying in Brighton,
Mashing all the girls on the Prom-what-what!
Dazzling them with my lavender trousers,
Suddenly the girls yell'd out "Great Scot!"
Some old chap was running round wrapp'd
Up in wet seaweed,
Shouting "Dogs, they've pinch'd my togs!"
So like a friend in need,

In these old lavender trousers
Said I, "There's room for two, sir!
Though you're fat, and I'm like that,
I'm sure there's room for you, sir!"
And all the girls began to screech,
For he and I had one leg each,
And arm in arm we toddled up the beach
In these old lavender trousers.

Last year we had a week in Blackpool,
Hadn't got a trunk or a bag, and so
Pack'd the things in the back of my trousers -
I was a walking portmanteau.
When we reach'd the station. oh!
My missus what a brain!
Said "Don't pay for the kid, you jay!
Smuggle him into the train."

In these old lavender trousers
I push'd our little Sammy,
Walk'd right thro', and paid for two -
Me and his dear mammy.
But that kid, when the guard came round,
Got me pinch'd and fin'd a pound,
'Cos he pok'd his head thro' a hole that he had found
In these old lavender trousers.

Once I was a tragedy actor -
Thirty bob a week, and a real big star!
When the limelight shone on these trousers
Ladies in the stalls would faint - Ah, ah!
In the drama "Dirty Dick"
I fairly froze their blood,
Till the lords up in the "gawds"
Started throwing lumps of mud.

In these old lavender trousers
To act I wasn't willin'.
They kicked me on and the limelight shone,
And the heroine said "Vill'in!
Have you no heart for a woman's woe?
No tender feeling at all? No, no!"
Then I rubb'd my patch and I said "What oh!"
In these old lavender trousers.

RP Weston & Harry Bedford

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Over the top

I never met my paternal Grandfather, John. He died before I was born, of causes that hint of a life lived to the full. He was what is often called a "character". A small, wiry man with sparkly eyes and a large personality, he was handsome, gregarious and a born entertainer. He performed comic songs in a music hall act, once even performing before the then Prince of Wales. Clearly my grandmother was smitten as she travelled steerage to India to marry him in 1922, against the wishes of her family (she was Catholic, he Church of England).

He was in India because he was a Private in the Northamptonshire Regiment, and before India he'd seen service in France during WWI. He didn't enlist until February 1918, aged 25 and was injured out shortly afterwards. I guess the reason for his late enlistment was that he was a coal miner and so probably categorised as being in a reserved occupation. The reason for his return home makes for a more amusing story.

I have no record of exactly where in France he was, but he was in the trenches waiting the order for a new push. Apparently everyone was issued with a tot of rum before an advance. A small shot of courage no doubt. Not everyone could face drinking theirs, so Grandad (being Grandad and not wanting to waste a good drink), drank all the spares. He was, the story goes, rather drunk and so when the order came and they charged out over the top, he tripped up, his legs in the air and got shot through the foot.

A narrow escape and ticket home that I will always raise a glass to!

Sunday, December 11, 2005

When you wish upon a stir...

I woke up abruptly rather early this morning by the room being shaken slightly. As I came to, the bottom of the blind tapped against the window frame maybe two or three times. In my half-awake state I thought that it had been a slight earth tremor and I went back to sleep.

I was quite incredulous later on when I got up and checked on the BBC website and saw the Hemel Hempstead explosion. I live about 40 miles away and felt it. The poor people who live nearby. And no doubt the rumours will start - there was already a rumour circulating during the week that there would be a bomb in Milton Keynes centre today, but then that particular version of scare-mongering always happens in the run-up to Christmas.

So, I'm now here writing this when I should be cracking on with housework before the children get back from their father's. But I'm not in the mood, though I have been shopping ready for our pre-Christmas ritual of pudding making. And yes, I know I should have made them a couple of weeks ago!

My Christmas Pudding recipe has been handed down sucessive generations on my mother's side. I come from a line of committed Methodists, many of whom signed the pledge, yet the recipe calls for both brandy & stout in generous quantities. I guess if you can't drink it, you'd better find ways of eating it! And who am I to argue.

So, this evening I'll put on some cheery music. Not too Christmassy (it's a bit early for anything too blatant). Maybe some Bach or Handel choral music, though the girls will complain if I join in con gusto. Maybe some Van the Man, to make me feel like dancing round the kitchen. And the girls will help me measure out, and crumb, and grate, and pour, and stir.

Of course, the most important part of the ritual is that when you stir the Christmas pudding you get to make a wish (clearly some devious ploy invented years ago to get the rest of the household to do some of the work). I've got lots of things I'd like to wish for, so I'll carefully pick one and keep it to myself (because if I tell anyone, even you, it won't come true). Then I'll put the pale mixture into basins and simmer them in the slow cooker overnight, so that they very slowly darken. And tomorrow morning we'll wake to the smell of Christmas.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Choices are the hinges of destiny

Yesterday I ground to a halt, feeling completely exhausted. This week, on top of my usual crazy routine, I've been preparing grounds for appeal on my daughter's non-selection for grammar school.

As well as (just about) holding down my full-time job, I've been ferrying children between school and various out-of-school activities, rehearsing for a carol concert, supporting my daughter at a cross-country meet, taking her to her violin exam, going to the school carol concert, meeting friends who have been through the whole process to get advice on how to proceed, meeting with my daughter's head teacher to discuss her support, and last night collapsing with a friend and a (much-needed) bottle of wine.

So, my application for appeal is in now in the post, winging its way to the LEA who think my little girl isn't good enough.

Several things have struck me over this week, and one of them is how many people keep information from their children. Information that affects their future. I know 10 is young, but 10 year olds think deeply. They also worry if they think you're hiding something from them. The letter we received last week telling us that Rose had not passed her 11 plus exam included in an enclosed brochure the advice to "Think carefully before letting your child read the enclosed results letter, which is addressed to you not your child. ..but it is your choice, so consider this carefully especially if the result is unexpected." As if you're going to read the brochure before you look at the results, and then say to little Timmy "I think it's best you don't see this, but don't worry your little head about it"!

I've heard of one set of parents have taken this advice to heart and hadn't told their child his results nearly a week after everyone else had received them. He'd failed, which was no doubt obvious to him otherwise surely they'd have told him straight away. It's a tough thing to land on your 10 year old, but surely better to be honest and open.

My daughter knows that I'm going for the appeal - she was involved in the decision to go ahead with it. She very much wants to follow her older sister to the local grammar school, and I needed to know that was the case before I went ahead. I've also been honest with her about our low chances of success, with the reassurance that I will do absolutely everything I can to succeed. And I've talked to her about other schools and taken on board her views. After all it is her life we're making decisions about, and I don't consider I have ownership.

It's a delicate balancing act between giving her too much choice and responsibility at a young age, and being over-protective. And it's all brought back to mind having to make a similar decision myself.

When I was about 10 we were living in Kenya, and I was at a boarding school in the UK. I loved it, even though I was a long way from home so could only be there for the three main holidays. After I'd been there for about 18 months and I was home for the Christmas holidays, Dad had a long chat with me about how business wasn't going well and we were just about broke. He said that one saving would be for me to leave boarding school and go to a local school, but that if I really wanted to stay there he'd find the money somehow. It was my decision and there was no desperate hurry to make up my mind.

I agonised. I loved school, I had wonderful friends, I liked boarding - it made me feel independent. But there was a huge responsibility in that staying there would be a financial strain for the rest of the family. I was torn between what I wanted and what I thought was the right thing to do. I didn't think I could make the decision, and I wanted it made for me. But eventually I did it.

We had all gone to see my uncle off at the airport. The whole family was there - aunts, uncles, cousins, Mum, Dad, my sister & me. Fred was coming back to the UK on business. We all said good bye to him and sat in the airport viewing lounge watching him and the other passengers walk across the tarmac and up the stairs onto the plane. I was sat next to Dad, so I turned to him and said "I think I'll go to school here". "Ok", he replied and we said no more about it until a few years ago.

The trigger for my decision was the realisation that I couldn't face saying goodbye to my family and walking across that tarmac with the air hostess (as they were called then) and travelling all that way on my own, feeling very small and alone. And Dad was relieved because every time he'd waved me off, he'd (totally unknown to me) wept buckets seeing his little girl disappear like that.

It was probably the most difficult decision I've had to make, but I'm grateful to Dad for allowing me that responsibility. I hope I'm strong enough to give my children similar gifts.

Monday, December 05, 2005


When we have loved, my love,
Panting and pale from love,
Then from your cheeks, my love,
Scent of the sweat I love:
And when our bodies love
Now to relax in love
After the stress of love,
Ever still more I love
Our mingled breath of love.

Poem from the Sanskrit

Sunday, December 04, 2005

The things our children teach us

What a weekend! Friday was such a smack in the face and the worst of it was seeing my normally robust, exuberant and witty child reduced to a withdrawn, tearful little thing, for whom my reassurances that "everything will be ok" were hollow and meaningless.

Rose cried before she fell asleep on Friday night, curled up in my bed. She cried again as soon as she woke up. She cried when she got back from her friend's house on Saturday afternoon. She cried when we went to bed again. She even apologised to me. I comforted her, of course, and poured in all the positive energy I could muster, and then cried all over a couple of friends at the choral society afternoon rehearsal.

My maternal rage kicked in very quickly on Friday afternoon, and I phoned her headteacher and made an appointment to talk to her about putting in an appeal to secure a place at the grammar school. The odds are very slim (last year 85% of appeal places were granted to children with test scores higher than hers), but I'm going in fighting because that's the school she wants to go to. And educationally, financially and logistically it's the best choice all round. I'm not sure her headteacher is going to be very helpful, but I hope I'm wrong.

And small, beautiful and kind things happened.

The friends at choir (well, acquintances really I suppose) were wonderfully understanding about my momentary crumple.

After I'd dropped my daughter at her friend Samantha's house on Saturday morning, her mother rang to ask me how things were. Apparently Sam, though thrilled with her pass-mark, had cried for about an hour when she'd heard our news. Nina (the mother) said that she had talked to Sam about keeping an eye out for Rose at school to make sure nobody upset her talking about their results & which school they're now heading for, and said that if there was anything they could do (having her round, taking her out with them, etc for cheering-up purposes) just to call on them at any time. Her concern and support were heartfelt and much appreciated.

My ex is coming round tomorrow to talk action plan. He's putting together a budget for managing to continue at the private school if necessary. AND he'll sell his beloved VW beetle to help fund it if necessary.

Today has been busy. We've had Grandma and Great-Aunt and Aunt round for Sunday dinner, and lots of homework to finish. Then when Rose was having her bath, she started talking calmly about whether the grammar school is really the right one for her. My little 10 year old was saying that even though that's where she'd like to go because her sister's already there, and she'll be able to walk to school, and lots of her friends are going there, that maybe it isn't really the right place for her. And she talked about what subjects she'd like to do for gcse, and what she'd like to do at university. And that really what she wants to do is to play hockey for England, so how old does she have to be before she can be given one of those hockey shirts with her name printed across the back. I suggested we'd better aim for the Olympic team then. And she smiled.

If only as adults we could deal with our disappointments so well.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Toward the Unknown Region

We finally reached home and it was three in the morning. All four of us tired and pleased to be home after too long a journey, but I was dreading opening the front door. I turned the key in the door, and walked in with the girls following me. And I was right; the whole house was covered, not in a fine film by any means, but completely disguised in plaster dust. And they hadn’t finished yet. A note from the builders waited for us on the dining table. “A few pieces to finish off. We’ll be here at 8am”. Great. No lie-in then.

There was a mountain of post that could wait: it would be all bills and junk mail. We just needed to get the girls to bed, and hopefully their room would be clear. But one envelope caught my eye. Hand-delivered with just my name on the front. Bad news. I knew it was going to be the one thing that remained in the back of my mind throughout the two weeks holiday. Ian hadn’t made it. I opened the envelope and read. And there it was, the inevitable and most shocking.

“It’s from Steve,” I said. “They operated on Ian last week and he never recovered.” He did put his arm round me “I’m sorry,” he said. A rare moment of tenderness. “The funeral’s in Southampton on Wednesday. I’d like to go. ” And then the moment vanished, not even any traces of it left in the dust. I managed to find a spot to sit down among the dust-covered, piled-up furniture and downed a large gin.

Then four days later the funeral. Richard drove the car, Steve sat quietly in the front, Carol, Sally & I in the back. Sally wore the hat that made Ian laugh. It was one of those gloriously sunny days that add to the sense of disorientation at times of extreme sorrow. And somehow the random play on the CD player, guided by forces unknown, kept returning to James Taylor singing the line “And the sun shines on this funeral, the same as on a birth”. We sang along instinctively, Sally and Carol holding hands, heads close together.

At the church Ian’s father, remarkable and smiling, greeted everyone and made sure they found a seat, arranged that Jane was welcomed within the family and was mentioned in the prayers as “Ian’s special friend”. We cried on the front row and tried to sing and couldn’t imagine he was really there in that shiny box with the flowers on top. And somehow I managed to find my voice because Ian loved music and I wanted to sing well for him. George was distraught, said he felt worse than at his mother’s funeral, and Sue remarked “wasn’t that a jolly good sing!” Then we went to the pub and drank to Ian, and talked about him and laughed, and all tried on Sally’s hat, and had our photos taken with it on. And still it didn’t seem real.

And so here we are, three months later, to perform the concert he had planned. The challenges he set for himself and us have bravely been taken on by someone else. All difficult pieces in many ways, but the most challenging to me is this one. Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Beautifully written, technically difficult, and so emotionally demanding. I haven’t been able to listen to a recording of it without crying. The poignancy of Ian having chosen this for us to sing and for him not to live to conduct us in it has just added to the heartfelt force of the music.

The tower room door opens and our new conductor and the orchestra leader walk down the aisle towards us. We lead the applause, they acknowledge the audience and take their positions. Now the orchestra begins, softly. Someone coughs. I start to count the bars, feel the apprehension described by the piano and strings, take a breath (two bars to go), hold it, hear the first note in my head, feel the consonant ahead of the beat, now we are there. Darest thou now O soul in hushed tones swells out into the next phrase. Walk out with me toward the unknown region. We all know the first few lines by heart, so I can look clearly out into the audience and only need a glance at my music. I remember the instructions: “you know it all – you don’t need your books, make eye-contact with the audience, communicate with them”. They are silent out there, watching us, the orchestra and Mark conducting. Ian’s father is seated at the back, on his own, eyes closed, concentrating on the music. Where neither ground is for the feet nor any path to follow. Still the orchestra arouses sensations of unease. I am now immersed in the music, all sense of myself fading into the atmosphere. Nor voice sounding, nor touch of human hand. Ian’s father is now leaning forward, his face resting in his hands. Is he overcome by emotions uncovered by the music, or is he just concentrating on listening?

And as my eyes scan the back of the church I see him. There, beneath the gallery, by the tower room doors is Ian. He is walking across the back of the church. Can he hear us? It is definitely him, his dark tousled hair, the way he’s walking, the concentration on his face. He’s wearing his suit & bow tie, under his parka as if he has arrived ready to conduct. I know it not O soul. Am I imagining this? It must be the intensity of the music, and yet I feel no surprise: he should be here, he was supposed to be here.

Till when the ties loosen, all but the ties eternal. He would usually have been guiding us through this, there would have been eye contact with him. We would have known instinctively what he wanted; we would have felt his passion for the music. Yet he has no communication with us any more. He is just here, part of the music, doesn’t seem to see us, and may not even be listening. The music intensifies, and still he calmly wanders around at the back of the church.

Then we burst forth, we float, in time and space O soul. And the music takes over, building towards its climax. I can feel the sound in my head now, everyone around me, we are all part of the crescendo, the intensity. The strings playing faster and louder, until the resolution. Them to fulfil, Them to fulfil, O soul like a hymn tune. Them to fulfil, O soul! The last high note, at the peak of volume rings round the church. The piano and strings reach the conclusion. Silence. Applause. And he has gone.


Darest thou now 0 soul,
Walk out with me toward the unknown region,
Where neither ground is for the feet nor any path to follow?

No map there, nor guide,
Nor voice sounding, nor touch of human hand,
Nor face with blooming flesh, nor lips, nor eyes, are in that land.

I know it not 0 soul,
Nor dost thou, all is a blank before us,
All waits undreamed of in that region, that inaccessible land.

Till when the ties loosen,
All but the ties eternal, time and space,
Nor darkness, gravitation, sense, nor any bounds bounding us.

Then we burst forth, we float,
In time and space 0 soul, prepared for them,
Equal, equipt at last, (0 joy! 0 fruit of all!) them to fulfil 0 soul.

(From ‘Whispers of Heavenly Death’)

Life and other diversions

Tonight, dear reader, I emerge blinking from behind the curtain with my first blog. It was originally going to be as witty and insightful as many of the other blogs I've been reading in the last few weeks. However, real life has a habit of intervening, and very little goes according to plan. Well, in my life it doesn't anyway.

For instance, I join a dating site with the misguided anticipation of meeting some interesting and attractive men, but instead develop female friendship. A wonderful bonus of course, but not according to plan. Rather in the same way that I once went out to buy food for a barbecue and came home with a couple of antique chairs. Great chairs, perfect for lolling gaudy in my boudoir, but not ideal for char-grilling. Maybe I'm just easily distracted.

And needless to say today didn't entirely go to plan. It was supposed to go like this...

Get lots of work done, pick up youngest daughter from school clutching her 11+ results with nervous anticipation, open envelope, whoops of delight, rush home to elder daughter, phone round with good news, all go out for a meal in celebration.

However, in the reality that is mine...

Work didn't go well (too boring for here), got dragged out to the pub for lunch (this was an enjoyable diversion, I hasten to add), elder daughter wanted picking up from school making me late for younger daughter, who was clutching 11+ results in nervous anticipation.

And then, sadly it diverts too far from the grand plan for a ten year old to deal with. Failure. A very crappy place for a 10 year old to be landing with a bump. So we went off to the cinema with a friend and her daughter who has also failed, and we divert ourselves with Harry Potter. And I want to know where I can get one of those wands from. I mean, you can buy anything on Ebay these days. And the local secondary school is certainly not Hogwarts.

Tomorrow I'll start with a new grand plan and maybe I'll keep you posted