Thursday, 4 March 2010


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Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Saturday, 6 December 2008

When the lights went out ...

THERE I was on Saturday, fresh from the shower and looking forward to a day of recreation. Then the lights went out. And it wasn’t just the lights. The house was silent. No chugging fridge or whirring Sky box. Nothing. And, judging by the twitching curtains down the road, the rest of the street was in the same boat.
It turned out that Pylons-R-Us, or whoever controls our electricity supplies these days, had decided to switch off the power without so much as a by your leave, a card through the letterbox or a polite knock on the door. This was not particularly helpful, especially to the neighbour who had been enjoying a leisurely shower when the deed was done.
Meanwhile, I had my own mini crisis because, towel wrapped around my head, I had been about to blow-dry my hair. OK, to most people having soaking wet hair might not rate very high on the scale of human suffering, but if you’d ever been unfortunate enough to see my hair without the aid of volumising blow-drying and ceramic straighteners, you’d think otherwise.
And, the thing is, until all the power goes out, you don’t realise just how hamstrung you are without electricity. And I don’t just mean the discovery that nowhere in the house do we have a mirror placed near any natural light source, hampering my attempts to put in emergency Velcro-rollers.
You soon discover it’s very near impossible to do anything in a modern house without the aid of electricity.
Now I’ve experienced plenty of power cuts. Back in the 1970s, when I was very little, power cuts were a regular occurrence. In fact, thanks to a long and drawn-out power worker’s dispute, we had regular, even scheduled, power cuts. You’d look in that day’s paper to find out at what time, and for how long, yours would be. And then you just got on with it.
You lit a few candles and played Ludo – it really wasn’t that much of a hardship and was quite an adventure for a toddler. But we’ve come a long way since then and we rely on electricity for practically everything. Back in the 70s, you might have only had heating on one floor but it was a gas fire lit by a match and unaffected by power cuts.
So, on a Saturday morning in 2008, not only do we find ourselves with no lighting and – heaven help us – no television, we also have no heating. There’s no chance of a cheering cuppa because we have no way to boil a kettle. Even the hob needs electricity to light. Although the laptop is charged, there is little point in switching it on; no power means no Internet. And with every minute that passes, you can just hear your frozen food thawing out.
As it turned out, the power was out for less than an hour so I didn’t have to break out the Trevor Bayliss wind-up radio/torch/beacon/siren combination we had bought “in case of emergencies”. Quite what this emergency might be I’m not sure – perhaps an 8.3 earthquake hitting Mickleover? But, with the first-aid box, tins of soup and bottles of water stashed in the pantry, it constitutes our emergency kit as suggested by that government booklet sent out a couple of years ago. Of course it didn’t suggest just how we are supposed to heat said soup. But then I am beginning to suspect that the real point of the leaflet was to give us something to do rather than actually help us.
What I really needed on Saturday was a leaflet entitled: “20 Ways To Style Your Hair When the Power’s Off.” Or, better still, a wind-up blow-dryer.
I might just drop Mr Bayliss a line about that one.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Making the best of a bad job

I RAN into an old work colleague the other day and, as great as it was to catch up, it left me wondering how we could both have such fond memories of working in a place that was, quite honestly, horrible.
We were treated as an inconvenience: always the last to know but the first to be blamed. Our one toilet doubled up as a shared locker, and we had only one chair between six of us.
If we were lucky enough to get a lunch break, the only place to munch our sandwiches was sitting on the stairs leading to the basement. We were so understaffed that we worked an hour late and came in an hour early every day. All for no extra pay.
When business suddenly tailed off, our boss insisted that, rather than allow rival companies to realise what was happening, each of us should take a turn walking around the town for an hour, so those left behind would at least appear busy.
Yet, while staff moral was low, camaraderie was sky high. I’m sure you can imagine though, after a year of being treated like this, I wasn’t the only one at the Christmas bash who over-indulged at the free bar. The next morning, of course, complete with what I am pleased to say was the worst and last hangover of my life, turning up for work was even more depressing than ever.
A friend reckons that you don’t know you’ve got a good job until you’ve had a bad one. But being well looked after by your boss is no guarantee of workplace happiness. If the chemistry’s wrong your colleagues can be every bit as aggravating.
I’ve been very lucky – most of the people with whom I’ve worked have become friends. But we’ve probably all worked somewhere where office politics and cliques have been an integral and very unpleasant, part of the environment. It’s funny how so-called professional rivalry has the habit of making people behave in an entirely unprofessional manner. And even in the most serene office environment, there are things about your workmates that can drive you mad.
Take, for example, staff rooms. I once shared one with colleagues who never cleaned up after themselves. They could see nothing wrong with crumby worktops, gunky plugholes and slimy crockery. I stopped using the fridge completely when I opened it to discover the cure for something growing at the bottom.
Not that I lay any claim to being the perfect co-worker either. I have what I describe as sa pecial system of pyramid filing. Others may choose to call it a great big wobbly pile of papers on my desk, but, believe me, I know what I’m doing. Besides, I once read a study that said a messy desk is the sign of an organised mind. And then there’s that whole empty desk equals empty mind thing. I really don’t do it to annoy my work mates. Although I have to admit the temptation to aggravate does occasionally overtake even me.
Years ago, I worked with someone who was tidy to the point of obsession. Every pen, pencil, notebook, telephone and tissue box was lined up at precisely 90 degrees to the desk. Even her coffee mug had a special spot. But, rather than being irritating, this little trait actually inspired quite an entertaining game.
While she was out of her office, I’d move a pencil a degree or two out of alignment. Then through the glass door I’d watch as she returned and, a split second later, as she formed a puzzled frown swooped across the room to replace the errant object. It was petty, I know, but come on there’s really only so much perfection a girl can take!

Saturday, 18 October 2008

There's no need to be down in the mouth!

Visiting the dentist is never a pleasant experience. Being tipped upsidedown, poked, prodded and scraped is no-one's idea of fun. Especially when there's always the possibility that you might have to undergo the whole ordeal again, this time accompanied by the sound of a drill squealing through your skull. So when I was given the all-clear recently, I was pleased enough. Until, as I was jumping down from the chair, the dentist asked: "Have you ever had a problem with your smile?" What sort of a question is that? My mouth opens and closes just fine. And I seemed to be able to form a smile, although by this point it was becoming ever more strained. I sensed that what he was really asking me was whether complete strangers came up to me in the street to tell me that my teeth were crooked. OK, they may not be perfectly straight or blindingly white, and my smile is a bit gummy, but I'm pretty sure they're not that bad. Yet all of this could be easily fixed, apparently, and the dentist seemed disappointed when I declined the chance to look like a toothpaste ad. Besides, I hardly dared ask the cost, having already had to force down a gulp at the price of a check-up and scale and polish. I suppose the credit crunch bites for dentists too. After all, someone has to pay for the leather sofas and original artwork in the reception. Obviously, I'm not going to identify the dentist concerned. The idea of pointing the finger at someone who may one day be hovering over my delicate gums wielding a sharp needle and a vibrating drill seems just the least bit foolish. But it left me wondering just what defines perfection and how far are we prepared to go to achieve it? Out of curiosity, when I got home, I consulted the internet – always the Font of All Knowledge, after all – to find the answer.
Apparently there are set "rules" for what constitutes a "perfect" smile. "Ideally," the rules state, "only the pink triangular parts of the gum between the teeth show."But, it notes, an "irregular gum line" – clearly I have one of these – can be easily "corrected". It's all to do with something called the "Golden Proportion". The Ancient Greeks discovered it, and before you ask what they knew about cosmetic dentistry, apparently it applies to all things in nature.In dentistry terms, this means that each tooth should be a certain size and dimension in relation to those that surround it. There was also a lot of talk about symmetry. But, in my experience, symmetry has very little to do with beauty. Take supermodel Kate Moss or actress Keira Knightly. Both women are undoubtedly beautiful and neither seem troubled by not having what you'd call the perfect smile The Americans, of course, have a completely different attitude. To us Brits, "bad teeth" means that they are going rotten; to our friends across the Pond, they are simply uneven.
But the fact is that Mother Nature knows little of such perfection, so anything altered to appear so is, well, plainly artificial.
If you happen to be lucky enough to have been blessed with naturally even, pearly-white teeth, then that's wonderful, but for the rest of us, why the urgency for perfection? If everyone had the correct formula for a perfect smile, surely every grin would look the same as the next. And where do you stop? Supposing I have my smile "corrected", do I then need to inflate my lips, paralyse my frown and have someone vacuum up the fat from my love handles?
When I think of it like that, I'd rather stick with my God-given quirky flaws.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Raise the song of harvest-home!

WITH food prices marching ever upward, I can’t be the only one whose trips to the supermarket are becoming more considered, these days. Last week I was about to pick up the fancy French conserve that is thrice the price of the budget version. Then it occurred to me that I buy it only because it tastes “homemade”. So did I really need to pay over the odds for something I could easily make myself?.
You see, this is my favourite time of year. The minute it begins to get just that little bit back-endish, I’m off in a flurry of pie baking and soup making. Now, though, it’s also making economic sense.
Nearby, I noticed a huge pile of strawberries, all “reduced to clear”. They may not have been the prettiest, shiniest, shapeliest berries (although experience has taught me that visual perfection has little to do with flavour), but they were fresh enough. What’s more, there were also blackberries. And I hadn’t tasted blackberry jam since childhood.
When I was small, we had ancient wild bramble bushes at the bottom of our garden. Long, late summer days always seemed to end in trips to the brambles, bowl in hand, hunting for the juiciest, ripest berries. Even the necessary thorn pricks and inevitable inky-purple stained fingertips were worth the reward of all things blackberry: pies, crumbles, fools and jam.
Just the sight of them in the supermarket made me yearn for those days and I couldn’t resist. An afternoon in the kitchen filled the pantry with jams and stacked the freezer with fruit pies.
Actually I’m getting scarily domesticated. I’ve even started gardening. Well, growing salad leaves at any rate. I did make several squirrel-spoiled attempts at pumpkins, but this year I was determined to branch out.
I realise that veteran allotment owners out there might not be too impressed by the 122g of short, bendy carrots that I harvested last week, but I thought I did quite well for a first attempt. And mighty nice they tasted too.
Next year, of course, I’ll know that if you want six-inch long carrots, you need to give them at least that much depth of soil … but I’ve seen Gardener’s World; even the experts don’t always get it right.
Even for the newbie veggie grower, it can get pretty competitive. As I patted myself on the back for my carrots, a friend texted me with a picture of her bumper potato crop. Well I couldn’t let that go, so I countered with a snap of my carrots (with nothing to measure their size against, they looked rather impressive) and, for good measure, threw in one of the large, juicy, ripe peach that had unexpectedly sprung up on the patio tree.
Soon, I suppose, I’ll be getting photographs of bountiful beans and tons of tomatoes. But just wait until next year …
While I can’t imagine myself ever knitting my own muesli, or turning the garden into a set for The Good Life, I’m determined to expand, although my loathing of garden creepy crawlies means my family reckon I’m much more a Margot than a Barbara.
Nevertheless, all that sowing and tending, and waiting for the weather and Mother Nature to do their magic, keeps you in touch with the turning seasons in a way that purchasing packaged, out-of-season produce, not to mention processed foods, never can.
Even buying locally grown in-season fruit and veg will do that. And while I won’t claim that it’s going to save the planet, it’s certainly not doing it any harm.
And, you know, I’ve a hunch that, with cost of living skyrocketing, I’m not going to be the only novice veggie grower, or careful shopper, enjoying a sense of self-satisfaction, come next year’s harvest.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Sweet nostalgia!

IT was a trip to Matlock Bath that brought back memories of my childhood. Although I'd passed through many times on my way to Bakewell, it had been years since I stopped off there.

Now a walk around Derbyshire's very own "seaside" resort was like taking a trip back in time, with its kiss-me-quick cheerfulness, ice-cream kiosks and fish and chip shops.

But this is Derbyshire, so rock shops here are full of fluorite and Blue John, rather than sticks of the seaside version. Nonetheless, there are still plenty of places peddling fudge and candy floss.

There's nothing like a sugary trip down memory lane and the shops that particularly took my fancy were the old-fashioned sweet shops. In one I stared wide-eyed at shelf upon shelf of huge jars of traditional sweets.

From sherbet pips to cinder toffee, sarsaparilla tablets, bulls' eyes, floral gums and barley sugar. Name any old sweetie and I'll bet it was there.

The shop also had a huge selection of liquorice products: wands and wheels and fudge as well as liquorice-filled chocolate. I didn't really like the sound of that. Actually I didn't like the sound of any of them, since I've always loathed liquorice. So much so that, to avoid it, I always ate my sherbet fountains with a spoon.

One of the delights of a visit to Chesterfield was that wonderful fragrance that hit you the second you stepped off the train: the smell of Refreshers coming from the Trebor factory

As an adult I visited Hershey, Pennsylvania, where the intoxicating aroma of chocolate fills the air. Mind you, there is a town that celebrates candy; even the street lamps resemble chocolates.

Every summer, in homage to my schooldays, I treat myself to a pick-and-mix bag. Such things were usually reserved for school holidays because it was all too easy to spend a small fortune filling up those huge paper bags with sweets.

What I was allowed to have every week was the wonderful tenpenny bag. Which for today's kids would probably cost about a pound.

Funny isn't it, how when you get all nostalgic, you end up turning into your parents? But when I was a little girl, ten pence worth of sweeties could last you all weekend. I reckon for that amount I could get a toffee log, a couple of flying saucers, a chocolate saw, some parma violets, a marshmallow cable and four halfpenny chews. Sometimes, though, I just blew the lot on some Love Hearts and a candy watch.

We had plenty of novelty sweets, too. We were the first generation to experience Space Candy, a sweet that exploded alarmingly in your mouth when you dropped some on your tongue. It was utterly compulsive, if slightly unpleasant. If you dipped in the packet with a wet finger you ran the risk of activating the candy before it reached your mouth, so popping some in the direction of your eye. Health and safety would have had a field day.

Yes, eating sweets can be hazardous. We've probably all lemonade-crystalled ourselves into sneezing fits. And you underestimate the tongue-slicing power of a cracked sherbet lemon only once.

Back in Matlock Bath I decided to try a bag of "Derbyshire Mix". I'd never heard of that before and feared it might be a modern invention, but oh what a treasure trove it proved to be: humbugs, and fruit rock, rhubarb and custards, and satin pillows aplenty.

I tried to resist but had got only as far as Cromford before giving up any pretence of maturity and taking a sneaky dip-in. But then I was betrayed to my fellow bus passengers by a pear drop-induced coughing fit.

I thought briefly about offering the bag around, but held back. Some things you just have to indulge in by yourself.