Friday, 31 July 2009

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover
Mistress of the Art of Death
by Ariana Franklin

"It is 1171, and in Cambridge a child has been hideously murdered and other children have disappeared. The Jews, who provide a large part of King Henry's revenue, are being accused of the crimes by angry townspeople, therefore the king wants the real killer found, and quickly."
The title refers to Adelia, who is a forensic doctor sent from Sicily to help the investigation. The story is a good one, told with a good deal of historical accuracy (not that I'm any expert on 12th century England). I enjoyed it enough to be interested in reading subsequent titles in the series. Good holiday reading!

Image of the book cover
by Robert Harris

"The engineer Marcus Attilius has been placed in charge of the massive aqueduct that services the teeming masses living in and around the Bay of Naples. Despite the pride he takes in his job, Marcus has pressing concerns: his predecessor in the job has mysteriously vanished, and another task is handed to Marcus by the scholar Pliny: he is to undertake crucial repairs to the aqueduct near Pompeii, the city in the shadow of the restless Mount Vesuvius."
Again the author boasts of historical accuracy, and again I'm no expert, but it seems pretty authentic. He manages to weave a human interest story alongside an event which we all know will end in tears, but will our hero live? Will he save the young woman he seems to be falling for? And what will happen to old, fat, Pliny? I finished this on the plane coming home, leaving me without printed reading material - but hooray, I still had my ipod!

Image of the book cover
The Inimitable Jeeves
by P. G. Wodehouse

narrated by Jonathan Cecil
"A collection of stories with a cast of characters that includes bearded revolutionaries, practical-joking twins, incognito authors, and a pair of confidence tricksters. Our upper-class hero Bertie Wooster finds himself in all kinds of hot water, and Bertie's friend Bingo Little falls in love so often that it is impossible to keep track of his romantic entanglements, and always with the most unsuitable women."
I do love the language that Wodehouse uses, so it's always a treat to listen to a good narration. Despite being a series of short stories, there are running themes of Bingo's romantic entanglements, Bertie's choice of unsuitable clothing, and Jeeves successfully sorting them both out. Perfect holiday reading.

Image of the book cover
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Primary Phase
by Douglas Adams

performed by the cast of the original radio broadcast
"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. More popular, and certainly more successful than the Celestial Home Care Omnibus, better selling than Fifty-Three More Things to do in Zero Gravity, and more controversial than Oolon Colluphid's trilogy of philosophical blockbusters Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God's Greatest Mistakes and Who is this God Person Anyway?"
This isn't strictly a book since it's the original BBC radio broadcast, but it's my blog and I can include whatever I want. I haven't heard the recording for many years, having had to make do with books, TV and the film, but the original is the best, no doubt about it. This special edition even includes a fascinating documentary about the origins of the first and second radio series: poor Douglas Adams had to be locked in a hotel room by the producers to force him to meet deadlines, and on the day of the broadcast, he hadn't actually finished writing the final episode of the second series.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009


View of lawns and palm trees
I'm back! In case you hadn't noticed, I haven't posted for over a week, while I've been on holiday with dad visiting relatives in Israel.

"But isn't it a bit hot in Israel at this time of year?" I hear you ask.

The answer is "Yes, it is hot. It is hot like the sun, hot like an oven. It is so hot that the heat hits you like a brick. It is too hot to breathe, to move, to walk. It is very hot. The heat is a physical entity, pressing against your skin..."

You interrupt at this point, as you are understandably unwilling to endure any more heat-related metaphors. "Why, then, did you travel to Israel at this particular time, when there are many other times of the year when it is, presumably, less hot?"

A good question, which deserves a careful and well-considered answer. It is because we are mad.

You stop asking questions at this point, smile nervously, and offer me a nice cup of tea. I have missed tea. I didn't have a hot drink for a week, except one herbal tea indoors - did I mention how hot it was on holiday? We were in Israel, in July, visiting relatives. We are mad.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

A great teacher

Music and practice notebook
Mrs T, who taught me to play the clarinet from 1972-82, has retired, even though she hardly looks any older now than she did back then. Six of us from those olden days turned up for the party, and I'm glad we were there to play tribute to a wonderful teacher. I count myself very lucky to be taught by her.

I must have started learning the clarinet at about 8 years old, at which point the instrument would have been almost bigger than me. Both the London Borough of Redbridge and my parents were very supportive of music in schools, and I was given the opportunity to choose what I'd like to play. I first met Mrs T in a little room smelling of old socks and floor polish next to the school assembly hall. D had already started learning the oboe, I couldn't get a sound out of a flute (I still can't) so I thought I'd have a go at the clarinet.

It was some time later that my own clarinet actually arrived, in a black plastic case with the sections held in place by blue foam. It wasn't at all clear how they fitted together. I suspect that the reed showed up a little later in the proceedings. I was very excited. At my first lesson I must have been shown how to get a sound out the thing, and having played the recorder I already knew the basics. I was equipped with a little red notebook where Mrs T would write down my homework, and that first week she suggested I try and play a few things by ear. At home, I had to ask my parents if they knew who this composer was.

The music teacher in my primary school was another brilliant, if eccentric, character. He ran a school orchestra that included any pupil who could get a note out of an instrument. Percussionists weren't overlooked, and he even encouraged conducting and composition. At the age of eleven, I had a go at writing music. He even gave me the opportunity to perform a bit of Mozart's Clarinet Quintet in a school concert. By this time, I was deemed good enough to be given a 'music award', which meant lessons on my own with Mrs T, and membership of Redbridge Music School. This was a wonderful organisation, running orchestras, choirs, wind bands as well as music and theory lessons on Friday nights and Saturday mornings.

I was desperate to play the piano too, and eventually I was allowed to have lessons, although I've never been quite as comfortable with piano as clarinet. I played in the wind band as well as the orchestra, and went on summer music and activity holidays in the Redbridge outdoor pursuits centre in Wales as many times as I was allowed. We played at Snape in Aldeburgh, at St John's Smith Square, London, and in the Redbridge Schools Choral Festival at the Albert Hall in 1982, where I performed the clarinet solo in Henry Wood's Fantasia on British Sea Songs. That performance was recorded, and I still have the record. That was a high point.

In the background for all this time was Mrs T, teaching, encouraging and supporting. I don't remember ever being told off, although like any youngster there were times when I was less than enthusiastic about practising. In fact, I don't remember Mrs T ever getting angry at all - the abiding memories are of her infectious laughter, her smiling eyes, her encouragement, her enthusiasm.

After I left school, we somehow kept in touch. It was mostly down to other friends of mine - I don't think I would have managed to maintain the contact on my own. Mrs T (or Kath, as we can now call her) moved away to the middle of Essex, and I learned about her work there from the glowing tributes paid at the retirement party. The school music department there has grown from one vandalised piano in a damp music room into a department in its own building with a reputation as a centre of excellence. They were lucky to have her working there too.

Kath and her clarinetNow that she has retired, Kath and her husband, the wonderful Richard, will have time to spend travelling, indulging themselves, and essentially doing all those things that one can't do at the same time as a full time job. I wish them all the best in the world.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

A busy week

Close up of the centre of a pink poppy
Last Sunday, Lola II and I 'helped' dad to sort through the stamp and coin collection that dated back to his teenage years, plus a few family 'heirlooms'. It was difficult for all of us: for him because we were proposing to dispose of a lifetime's work; for Lola II and me because we couldn't muster a scrap of interest in this stuff he has cared for and cared about for so long. First day covers, miniature and minister sheets, 'Tet Besh' configurations, piedfort coins, Maundy money, Churchill crowns - someone wake me up when it's over. But the English exercise book where he'd written about King Lear while at school in the 1950's, or the metal tin that contained a powder puff belonging to our grandmother, still retaining a hint of fragrance - I'd keep those in my living room, to pick up and look at from time to time.

Then during the past week I've been to Nottingham, to learn about and help with the PhD that one of my lecturers is doing. I've done a bit of data entry from returned questionnaires, and took part in a set of role play scenarios as the 'patient', while two proper dietitians were taking turns to play 'good' and 'bad' helpers to demonstrate various different communications skills.

I was a single mum with two children aged 5 and 7 living in a council flat, and my problem was a chap living downstairs who had his TV turned up loud at all hours, keeping us all from sleeping at night. There were six little segments, each of which we filmed once as 'good' and once as 'bad'. By the end of the day all three of us were exhausted, and it was difficult to remember that I don't live in a flat or have any children. The video clips will form part of a communications skills course for health professionals.

Meanwhile, Mr A was away on a motorbike trip in France. He was tipped off about it by a biker friend, and it involved following directions in the manner of orienteering (but with GPS), mostly off-road. This is the sort of thing he loves, but the pressure was on - many of the other participants were from the army, days were very long, and the riding was fast and difficult. At some point he lost the clutch and most of a brake lever, and eventually decided that the bike was too unroadworthy to ride back home (even though he could probably have managed it). His bike insurance included European recovery, so he gave them a call, and then spent 10 hours hanging about at the side of the road and in garages before finally reaching a hotel. The whole thing was a nightmare, but he made it back eventually, although it will be a week or two before we see the bike again. He says that apart from the journey home, it was a really good trip.

Mr A's troubles didn't end there though, because today I was called upon to wield the clippers and take his hair down to a reasonable length. Due to an unfortunate misunderstanding he has ended up completely bald, rather than his usual no. 2 cut, and he is not too happy about it.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Kentish holiday part 2

Grey clouds above a pub bench on the beach
Continued from part 1...

We had decided to stay in two different campsites with one night in a B&B in between, in case of dire need for showers. In fact our state of health and cleanliness was pretty good, but it was nice to sleep in a real bed anyway. We packed everything up on Monday morning and made our way to Whitstable, first via Ashford, then Faversham. In Ashford we went on an ultimately unsuccessful quest for camping fuel, and visited the Canadian tank that stands in the town centre (well, Mr A was on holiday too).

Mr A in front of a military tankLunch was a picnic on the green in a village on the way to Faversham: M&S olive bread, Laughing Cow processed cheese, and a tomato. We really know how to party. Faversham is a lovely small town with 'many original features'. It is renowned historically for the manufacture of gunpowder (although the Gunpowder Mill building was closed) and is the home of Shepherd Neame brewery (no public tours until next week). So we went to the pictures instead, and saw the new Star Trek film. I spent days afterwards trying to understand exactly how the plot worked.

Lemon desserts with fish counter in the backgroundOn to Whitstable, and the B&B turned out to be really good - big room, great breakfast, welcoming host. I can recommend it. We had economised on the cost so it was a walk out of town, but that was so we could treat ourselves when it came to food. Many places are closed on a Monday night, so we were pleased when we found that the Tapas restaurant we'd been to on our last visit was open. And next day our treat continued when we decided to see if Wheelers, the famous seafood outlet, could accommodate us for lunch in its tiny restaurant. They only had space at the counter in the minuscule shop, where we met another local couple who'd had the same idea. The 'Lemon 3 Ways' dessert was amazing.

The second campsite was disappointing. It was twice as expensive as the first one (although still half the price of the B&B), no fridge, and still no pub within walking distance. And it had started to rain. We had a frugal supper of bread and cheese while sheltering in the porch of the tent.

Pub tables and chairs with half a boat sticking out of a wall in the gardenIt was still a bit wet on Wednesday morning, but we struck out first to Sandwich and then Deal. Lunch in Sandwich was fish soup (me) and whitebait (Mr A) with chips and salad in a pub at the quay; Deal furnished no refreshment, but a beautiful seafront row of houses and a very ugly pier.

Uneven hedge and wild flower borderOnwards to Walmer Castle, which happens to be where Wellington died. We took the free audio tour around the building, which was quite good except they thought perhaps it would be more interesting if some description was provided by a woman pretending to be a lady who had lived there in the 19th century. It was terrible. The gardens were beautiful though, and I particularly liked the two long hedges that had been frost damaged, but instead of being removed they were just clipped to remove the damage. Rather than being perfect and symmetrical, they were lumpy, which I thought made them much more interesting.

We went to Canterbury for dinner, and wandered around looking for a restaurant that we fancied. We found Deesons Restaurant, exactly what we were looking for. The menu looked good, prices reasonable, but most of all they made us feel really welcome. Mr A had a wonderful pork dish; my steak was only mediocre but I didn't mind because it was really a pleasure to eat there. They even served proper beer as well as wine.

The holiday was nearly over; just one more lunch to go, which was consumed at a pub in Eynsford that served delicious roast beef sandwiches (Mr A) and mozzarella and avocado wrap (me). This was after our visit to Lullingstone Roman Villa. Despite providing a lot of information on boards and a short video alongside the ruins and almost complete mosaic, we found the experience strangely unsatisfying.

Back home now - and you'll have noticed the delay between homecoming (Thursday) and blog publication (yesterday: Sunday). Life is full and eventful - I had to go to work on Friday, travelled to celebrate a retirement on Saturday and spent Sunday with Lola II, tormenting our father in order to please our mother - eventually I hope he'll forgive us all. Today, Monday, I've been working in Nottingham, and will be continuing to do so for the rest of the week. It's a hard life.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Kentish holiday part 1

Bee on red and orange daisies
What you don't want, I've decided, is a list of "We went here, then we went there, we saw this and that and it was very nice." Take it as read, we had a lovely holiday, it was mostly sunny, we did many of the things that we enjoy, i.e. wandering about, reading books and newspapers, eating, visiting pubs, looking at interesting things and sleeping in a tent. We even went to the cinema!

The only difficulty encountered was that we ran out of fuel for Mr A's all-powerful stove, which he has always boasted can run on 'anything': special MSR fuel, but also petrol, kerosene, meths, paraffin... except it turns out it can't, at least not in the configuration that we had on the day. Our car runs on diesel and Mr A was concerned that it might gunge up the jets or something; the petrol worked (a kind motorcyclist at the gas station illegally let us have a little bit while he was filling up) but we didn't get enough, and the lamp oil was a disaster.

Apart from that little vignette, I thought I'd tell you about the food, seeing as how we both love food and took some trouble to match our situation and our tastes. I'll mention the places we went alongside the meals taken there.

Boat on the beachBreakfasts on all our camping trips (while the stove worked) consist of instant noodles in soup. Unusual, I know, but easy to boil the water, very quick, and you can add odd stuff that you have. Odd stuff that we had was courgette, dried shitake mushroom, a tin of strange crispy fried shrimps from the Oriental store, and a peculiar tin of mackerel from the same shop. When the stove ran out of juice, we headed off to a 'caff' and had bacon, eggs, sausages, tomatoes and fried bread. Oh well.

On the way down to Kent, which we undertook on a Friday afternoon, we encountered the M25 at about 4.30pm. An hour and a half later I was getting so cross that we decided to just get off the road and go through the countryside, even if it took longer. We stopped at a pub somewhere near Tonbridge to have supper while watching the end of the match where Andy Murray lost to Andy Roddick at Wimbledon. This was such fun that we decided to find somewhere to do the same on Sunday afternoon during the men's final. The food was fine (big salads) but I thought mine was overpriced.

View of tombstones and houses from Rye churchThe first campsite was near Newchurch on Romney Marsh - very flat, soft ground, good facilities and a fridge for campers! Mr A was much taken with this idea, because he could put beer in it. The downsides were that it was a long way from the nearest pub, and when the sun was out there were a lot of flies and those little black crawling insects that seem to occur near wheat fields.

Saturday: I thought Rye was a lovely little place, it had a feeling of elevation and clear air. It used to be an island surrounded by rivers, and we ate lunch (chicken and ham pie and salads bought from a local deli), sitting in the churchyard on the top of the hill. Mr A hadn't yet fully entered the holiday spirit and was fretting about various things, so after an unsatisfying and a frankly dull walk on the coastal flats, we abandoned any idea of further exploration and returned to the campsite to read the paper and chill. Supper was pasta and tomato sauce.

Mr A with Hastings boats and beach hutsSunday was when we ran out of fuel, so we returned to Rye for that cooked breakfast, then went on to Hastings. We both liked Hastings, and walked about the old town a lot, dropping into their local history museum and the fishermen's museum. The old town is wonderful, retaining lots of the fifteenth century houses, and characterful working boats on the beach. There's no harbour for mooring boats; they have to be winched onto the shore when not in use. We would have liked to stay for lunch, but a) we'd had an enormous breakfast and b) we had paid for a limited time in an excruciatingly expensive car park and had to move the car anyway. I'd go back there again, though.

So the plan was to drive around the countryside and come upon a pub serving a delicious Sunday dinner that was also showing the tennis. The template for this idea was where we'd eaten on Friday, but despite dropping in on several possible pubs, none had the combination we were looking for. Eventually we thought we'd found something suitable, but lunch wasn't that nice and the TV was a small screen on the end of the bar that could only be seen properly by about two people standing right in front of it. So we moved on, and eventually found a hotel where the kindly bartender was happy to turn on the TV. What we hadn't predicted was that tennis would go on for an eternity while Federer and Roddick slogged it out in the marathon final set.

To be continued in part 2...

Thursday, 2 July 2009

This week I've mostly been... working

It's all about work at the moment. I've spent two days at Nottingham uni's open days, welcoming prospective students and showing them and their parents around our little campus. I went to the dentist, returned to the hospital to repeat a Hepatitis B blood test that they lost, and went into Birmingham to see friends for the evening, one of whom thinks she has swine flu. Someone in the department I've been working in at Warwick whom I've never met has tested positive for swine flu. I feel fine, but if I were going to get swine flu I'm sure it would happen on the first day of a holiday. That would be tomorrow.

My other 'job' in Nottingham has started - I'm spending a few days helping one of the lecturers who's doing a PhD, by doing some data entry and playing the role of 'patient' in a video consultation. This will help her out, and I get to see another type of PhD, and compare and contrast with what I've been doing in the lab.

Drying samples in test tubes using a hairdryer
I can see the attraction of the lab-based PhD. You come up with a hypothesis, test it, repeat the test to make sure the results are consistent, adjust the hypothesis, test it some more, repeat those experiments, and onwards towards one additional fragment to add to the sum of human knowledge. It might go nowhere and be utterly unimportant, you might prove definitively that something does or doesn't work, or it might turn out to be the critical breakthrough in the treatment of disease. The last option is obviously extremely rare and unlikely.

After just one day thinking about the other type of research, where you don't have chemicals to mix and quantitative outcomes to measure, I prefer the certainty of the lab. I know this will pass - any first day at a new job is always difficult. I've had a glimpse at SPSS, statistical analysis software that is a million times more intuitive and user-friendly than the one they insisted on using in the Computing module last term. I'm now thinking about a story I can use for the role play, so that I can be interviewed on video. I'll probably write more about this another day.

I'm struggling with full time working, especially as the incentive is low because of not being paid. All the jobs at home are stacking up, and some are quite important. We're going off camping tomorrow, just when the hot weather is due to break, and will miss the end stages of the tennis at Wimbledon, just when there's a chance of a British winner. It's pretty much the only time Mr A and I watch sport on TV, but if it's raining then we'll have the double advantage of seeking out a dry pub to sit in and watch the tennis.

So I'm slacking, blogging when I should be concentrating on my role play story and trying to think of a suitable project idea for my final year. The project is some way off, but if we can come up with something good and start early it will ease the pressure if I end up doing 70 credits instead of 60 next spring.

After today, though, Mr A and I will be off on a week's break, camping in the south east of England. Let's hope it doesn't rain ALL the time.