Tuesday, 30 March 2010

It's over, for now

Leamington bandstand with colourful string strung between the posts
It's very nearly the end of term, and in the words of the harvest hymn, all is safely gathered in. The essay about folate fortification, the research proposal and even the online Molecular Nutrition test were all submitted on time.

My coeliac disease session yesterday was fine too. It's interesting that I would have liked the opportunity to suggest what I might have done differently, but for a change, we weren't asked for any reflection this time. The content of the session as I delivered it all seemed very negative - you can't eat this, you can't go there. If I did it again I would try and stress the positives more - you have to be careful, but eating out is still possible. Eating out with work colleagues is also politically necessary sometimes, so it's worth coming up with some ideas on how you get restaurant staff to cook and serve something that's safe.

When pretending to be customers, the other students were surprisingly bad at explaining what they needed. They kept telling the 'waiter' that they couldn't eat gluten, despite the majority of waiters not having the faintest idea what gluten is. Perhaps they were taking their acting role very seriously, and did it deliberately. Anyway, it's over now, and many thanks to Aims (who gave me some insight into her ways of dealing with c(o)eliac disease), to wheat-intolerant 'new' badminton friend, and to Lola II's friends and the 'old and fat' badminton crew who let me practice on them. (P.S. we still have someone's lovely black scarf from that last session. Available anytime on request.)

Just one more morning of lectures before I'm officially free. Then a few days off, before getting started on the next phase: more coursework, including studying for a new test that we've been set today, about food composition in terms of energy, protein and carbohydrate. And revision. Let's not forget revision. As if I could.

On a brighter note, the forsythia is in bloom showering yellow flowers all over the corner of the garden, daffodils are out in town, we have some tulip buds and the wisteria is showing signs of life. Just in time for the forecast of snow later in the week. I don't care, I'm going to enjoy my free time, even though a considerable amount will be taken up with cleaning our cesspit of a house, and restoring the legality of the car by removing the coating of mud from the registration plate. Spring cleaning will be living up to its name.

Lola sign + mumAnd a final hello especially to my US relatives, who are hosting a visit from mum at the moment, and sent us this lovely photo. Much love and a very happy holiday to you all.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover
This Sceptered Isle: The Twentieth Century
by Christopher Lee

narrated by Anna Massey and Robert Powell
"This audiobook continues the award-winning BBC Radio 4 series of the story of Britain, from the start of the 20th century to the present day. Christopher Lee's history of Britain, This Sceptred Isle, provides the definitive radio account of the nation."
So far I've listened to the first two in this 20th century series, covering 1901 to 1919 and 1920 to 1939, very inconveniently dropping us just at the outbreak of the Second World War. Anyone who's familiar with this series from the radio will know how beautifully it is presented, in little chunks of history with politics mixed in with social comment. Squeezing a decade into 90 minutes means it's pretty selective, and an awful lot is left out, but what's in there is informative, interesting and addictive listening. I have the next in the series (1939-1959) waiting on my desk.

Image of the book cover
Blood and Sand
by Frank Gardner

narrated by Alistair Petrie
"On June 6th 2004, in a quiet suburb of Riyadh, BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner and cameraman Simon Cumbers were filming a programme on al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia when they were ambushed by Islamic gunmen. Simon was killed outright; Frank was shot six times in the shoulder and pelvis, but against all the odds, he survived."
I remember the reports of the shooting, and of Frank Gardner's miraculous survival and rehabilitation. Despite being paralysed below the waist, he has returned to his job at the BBC, and occasionally appears on TV news. He actually started out in banking for the oil industry, having done a degree in Islamic Studies at Exeter University which allowed him to spend a year in Cairo. The switch to journalism came much later. The main disappointment with this book is the narration. The abridged version is narrated by the author, but is only 2½ hours long, and I would hardly ever choose an abridged book to listen to. This unabridged book is 12 hours long, but has been handed over to a most inferior narrator. Nevertheless, well worth reading.

Image of the book cover
One Hit Wonderland
by Tony Hawks

"'You don't have to do it,' said Victoria, from the end of the phone-line. 'It was only a bit of fun. Drunken high spirits and all that.' 'No, I want to,' I said, keen to move the conversation on to a discussion about how we might go for a drink together soon. 'And by my reckoning, the terms of the bet should allow me enough time.'"
Tony Hawks seems to be building up his sideline of making bets and writing books about the ensuing hilarity. This is his third, and the bet is that he has to have a top twenty hit record in any country around the world within two years. He has a go in Nashville, Ireland, Sudan, Romania and Albania, and it's an easy read, which is all I can manage at the moment - all my other reading is done from audio books in the car. The bit at the end when he's in Albania with Sir Tim Rice and Sir Norman Wisdom made me laugh out loud, although knowing that Norman Wisdom has dementia now is a little sad, because you can tell from his behaviour that he was probably in the first stages back then.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

The pain of deadlines

"Are you in employment at the moment?"

"I'm 80 years old!"

"I'm sorry, I forgot - you look much younger..."

This was the biggest laugh of my practice dietetic consultation yesterday. A volunteer actor was playing the part of 80 year-old retired teacher Mrs Johnson, and my job was to welcome her to the consultation, find out more about why she had been referred (she has lost 5 kg since Christmas and just doesn't have any appetite) and then advise on what she might do about it. This involved taking a diet history, which is a frequent activity in the real world of dietetic consultations, and something that we will definitely be doing on our placements over the summer.

Rather than an emaciated, frail, little old lady, my volunteer, Christine, was a well-built woman probably not much older than me. By the time I was asking about her employment status, I had completely forgotten that she wasn't who she appeared to be, as it were. Apart from that, the whole thing went pretty well. I forgot to ask her whether she had any allergies or food dislikes, but I'm not too worried about that, because if I'd suggested anything she didn't like or was allergic to, I'm sure she would have told me. More pertinent was that I failed to ask her whether she was taking any medication, because that might certainly have affected her appetite without her being aware of the cause.

I'm very glad that's out of the way, but I need to write it up and there are still many other deadlines to meet. My folate essay is nearly done (deadline 3pm Friday), my research proposal is nearly done (met supervisor today, hand in by next Tuesday), my education session on eating out with coeliac disease is coming along nicely. I must humbly thank the selfless volunteers who turned up last night to be educated, thus helping me practise for the assessed version on Monday. Special praise to Stubbly Swot who actually did some homework, and a hundred lines for Billy Knee for missing the main session but turning up for the social afterwards ("I will not fall asleep on the sofa. I will not fall asleep on the sofa"). They provided a few more useful ideas, and I think the majority of it will work. To tell the truth, I'm past caring at this point.

More distant deadlines include a case study for Mr Samuels, soon to become Number One Hate Figure comparable with Mrs Sparrow of times gone by. Also, a presentation and essay on the pharmacology of depression, Prozac and St John's Wort (not started yet). More serious is the Molecular Nutrition online test, deadline 12 noon on Monday, and I haven't started revising for that one yet. This has pretty low priority because it's only worth 10% of the module (but 20% really because it's a double module), compared with the research proposal that's worth 50% of that module. Also it's a multiple choice test that isn't negatively marked.

So that's the sum total of pain at the moment. If there were anything else in my life to blog about, I would, but Alf seems to have abandoned us for the time being, Mr A's teeth are no longer blogworthy and we haven't had a night off for ages. Just one week to go, and I'm counting the days.

Photo of the Textbook of Pain

Saturday, 20 March 2010

A week in student land


Morning: Nutrition in the Community. This contrasts with working in a hospital, and has been covering all the aspects of community practice that a dietitian might be involved in. My coeliac education session is part of this module. This week we were learning about tube feeding people living at home or out in the community, which involved a lot of calculations of energy and protein and fluid per kg body weight and timing delivery of the feed at ml per hour where bags contain 500, 1000 or 1500 ml at 1, 1.2 or 1.5 kcal/ml and 5.5 g protein/100 ml and can be delivered at 50-100 ml/h over 10-20 hours making sure that changing bags isn't at 2 am and people aren't getting too much or too little sodium and what if they get diarrhoea? I broke with tradition and sat at the back with some different, younger people, and I think I'll do it again. They are having just as bad a time as the rest of us but are somehow more pleasant to be with. Perhaps a change is as good as a rest.

Afternoon: An Occupational Health meeting and a meeting with my research project supervisor. It wasn't clear what the OH meeting was about, but I brought along all my vaccination records just in case. After waiting for 50 minutes sitting on the tiled floor in a corridor with all the other students who'd been summoned at the same time, the outcome was that I need to establish my vaccination status for measles and mumps. The meeting about my research project (The impact of visual impairment on food choices) resulted in some very good advice, but more work than I had hoped if I am to get it finished.

Evening: Badminton club night. I love badminton.


Baby sitting on the floorMorning: Dietetic Practice. we had a visiting lecturer talking about paediatric dietetics: mostly infant feeding and weaning, protein, energy and fluid requirements. The very best part about this lecture was that it didn't last for four hours, only three and a half. Main thing learned: weaning isn't just about nutrition, it's also about muscle control of chewing, swallowing and hand-mouth coordination. Meh. Don't care.

Afternoon: Normally a module about the research we're doing, but they're combining it with some other useful things in anticipation of our clinical placements over the summer. We have to practice doing a one-to-one consultation with a patient, so we have a volunteer each and up to half an hour to talk to them about their diet. We are not being assessed on our interview skills, but on the accurate completion of a hospital record card, and a thoughtful reflection on the experience. Mine is scheduled for next week, so I had the afternoon 'off', which I spent on my research project proposal.

Evening: More research proposal. Mr A reports toothache.


Morning: I visited the Rugby drop-in group of the Warwickshire Association for the Blind, where I met the person who's going to help me recruit volunteers for my research. Then I had a chat to some of the members of the Association who'd dropped in. I anticipate that the main problem I will have when I do the research is getting them to stick to the point. And to stop talking. Also received a message from our indefatigable student course representative, asking for feedback to take to the course management meeting. I am looking forward to this, even though it will take an enormous amount of effort to turn it into constructive criticism.

Afternoon: More on the research project, but seeing as I was at home for a change, I cooked the supper. Mr A went to the dentist, who diagnosed an infection and a need for root canal work, prescribed antibiotics and made an appointment for after Easter.

Evening: Research proposal finished, for now anyway. The exam timetable was published at the end of last week, so I spent an hour trying to plan all the coursework and revision that I'll need to do between now and then. It will all be over on 1 June, and none of us will die from the effort. It just isn't very pleasant at the moment. Mr A had to sleep sitting up because the pain stopped him sleeping lying down.


Morning: Molecular Nutrition, all about how gene expression is affected by a diet containing fat, and the possible reasons why omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (from oily fish) are better for you than saturated fats (from lard, meat and hard fats). It's not an easy subject, littered with many impenetrable terms such as SREBP1c and non-hormonal nuclear receptors and PPARs. I think I am now full, and anything more that goes into my brain displaces something else that has to fall out. I have lost some lecture notes, and I thought I'd lost my university card but found it in the car, and everything is in a muddle.

Lola II in 1971 in an 'English Super Chicken' cardboard boxAfternoon: Dietetic Practice about paediatrics again. This time it was practical cooking: we had to team up in fours and cook up a meal for a 6-month-old and a 9-month-old child, with an allocated bag of ingredients. My group of 'those left over once everyone else had formed groups of four' consisted of me, one girl who promptly cut her thumb rather badly, and the only male in our year who got the time wrong and turned up half an hour late. I gave Late Male the bloodied vegetables to look after, and Bleeding Girl did the nutrient calculations and made up a bottle of formula milk. I did the rest of the cooking, and Late Male did the washing up. The two paediatric sessions this week only served to confirm that I'm really not very interested in paediatric dietetics. It was nice to work with different people again though.

Evening: Badminton match. True to form we lost overall, but with GG and me winning two out of our three rubbers. I had so much more fun in those 2½ hours than in all the time I spent at school this week. There's another match next week, but I've had to pull out because all my deadlines happen just afterwards and I will need every evening for last minute panicking. Mr A feels a bit better now the antibiotics are starting to kick in.


Morning: Nutrition and the Health of Populations ('Nut & Pop'), with my favourite tutor/lecturer. I have discovered that I am not the only one in the room who has a soft spot for him, but he is my age not theirs and I will fight them if necessary. We are covering osteoporosis and nutrition of elderly people, particularly calcium and vitamin D and reasons for the high level of malnutrition found in the population of older people. The lecturer included the BBC report that dad drew my attention to earlier in the week, calling for better training in nutrition for doctors because malnutrition is still not picked up by GPs and hospital doctors. This is despite a seminal research finding 15 years ago highlighting that 40% of patients were malnourished on admission to hospital, and even more were malnourished on discharge.

Afternoon: I am supposed to be attending the last lecture in the Clinical Pharmacology module, about anti-obesity drugs. It is on a different campus, it is Friday afternoon, the lecture is only 18 slides long, there is now only one approved treatment for obesity since the only other one was withdrawn in the last few weeks, and we've been there and done that several times in different modules. So I didn't go. I celebrated by working on my essay for Nut & Pop, which is about the benefits and dangers of mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid in the UK. It is already done in the USA, Canada and Chile, but various European countries are still holding off. The UK Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition has recommended that we go ahead and fortify, but the Chief Medical Officer is still not convinced.

Evening: My evening off. Mr A's recovery stalled and he was in a bad way. He rattled when I shook him after taking two sorts of blood pressure pills, three sorts of painkillers plus the double dose of antibiotics for the root canal infection that the dentist advised. He was relieving the pain using iced water, and shunned the 'compress' that I manufactured by filling a finger of a vinyl glove with frozen peas. Eventually he managed to sleep with the aid of a piece of raw potato shaped in some way I can't quite understand but it kept his teeth apart or his mouth cool or something.

Saturday update: Mr A is much better and currently pain free. I am about to get started on a delightful weekend full of the pros and cons of folic acid fortification.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010


One side of the constipation leaflet
I am rather pleased with my constipation leaflet. This is never any guarantee of good marks, because it is always possible that the markers are looking for something I hadn't counted on. It looks particularly good because Mr A helped out - the NHS website contains design templates for all sorts of leaflets, but in formats only suitable for professional publishing software, which Mr A happens to have. So I supplied the words and the picture and he fitted them into the template.

Luckily, neither of us has ever suffered from constipation, although my research suggests that we are in a minority. There is a proper definition of constipation, but even the professional literature says this is a guide rather than a standard because it very much depends on what a person considers normal in their own experience. This can vary widely, from more than once a day to less than three times a week. Diagnosis of constipation might combine low frequency (less than 'normal') with a measure of effort, and consider quality of stools (small, hard and lumpy vs. large and soft).

I rather like the word 'stool'. One of the most interesting features about creating this leaflet was the language that could be used. In our spoken language, no matter what your background, nobody talks about 'bowel movements' or 'stools'. Yet this is the most effective phrase to use in a leaflet, and I know that because there's research on it. You can't say any of the normal words; they're either too informal or would cause offence. So if I were giving a patient a leaflet, I'd make a point of finding out the language a patient uses, and make sure that they know the official translation.

I'm sure you're interested in the recommended treatments: it depends on frequency and duration of the condition. Occasional acute episodes just need time and painkillers if necessary, or over-the-counter laxatives used for short periods of time. If it becomes chronic or bouts are very frequent, then change to diet and lifestyle is the most effective long-term treatment: more fibre, fluid, and activity. Long-term laxative use is not recommended. There are more potent treatments, and other serious conditions that start with constipation or the symptoms of constipation, so the usual disclaimer applies: go to a GP if symptoms persist.

The rest of the course and the coursework continues relentlessly. I still have five more deadlines before the end of term, and I've hardly started on two of them. I'm not the only one in the group that is reaching the limit of my endurance, but we will get through in the end. I'm having a short break from work over the Easter weekend, and then the next respite is after the exams.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

The pleasure of autonomy and humour

Colonnade outside the Pump Rooms, Leamington
I spent all of Wednesday working on my research project proposal. My research is going to be about the impact of visual impairment on food choices, and neatly combines my previous life with my current one. The actual research will take place next semester, starting in September, but I have to scope it out and get all the details sorted and submit applications for ethical approval and Criminal Records checking and everything else done this term.

It has reminded me of times gone by, not just in the subject matter, but in the focus I can bring to something that interests me and is left to me to manage in my own way. I hadn't realised how the rigidity of university study had contributed to the stress that I feel. Quite a lot of the art of coursework is working out what exactly is wanted, decoding the instructions, knowing who will be marking it and what they are like, trying to conform to the restrictions imposed so as to get a good mark.

Whereas, this research is being pretty much left up to me. My supervisor is happy to meet, and I am keen to get her advice on how to put the thing together, but the ideas are mine and the way I am going about it reminds me of how I used to work, back when I had a proper job. I have been enjoying the practical details, working out exactly how I will recruit volunteers, where the interviews might take place, how they will give informed consent. It feels good to have been responsible for my own destiny for a day.

Another thing I realise I have missed is the social side of work. At university I spend most of my class time with the same group of 30 students. I don't have much in common with any of them, there are a few that I actively avoid, most are fine. But in the past, in the various workplaces I've slaved in, there's usually some sort of light relief during the day, some social interaction or jolly story that someone can tell. Spending hour after hour sitting listening to a lecturer and watching a Powerpoint presentation is not interactive, even if they do occasionally make us work in pairs or groups - it's always work. There are few laughs.

I suppose I am to blame too. I don't watch the things everybody else watches on TV, I have no idea who the hot celebrities are or what music or bands are popular. I'm not interested in clothes or fashion, hairstyles, jewellery or shoes. I hate the negative gossip and criticism about the course, lecturers, tutors and other students. If I'm working, I don't want to be distracted by small talk or interrupted with questions, I want to get the job done and go home. It's tough to make conversation, but perhaps I should try harder. I don't make friends easily.

I was reminded of the real world of work and the need for a laugh by our lecture on Monday about renal disease, delivered by a practising dietitian from Sheffield. She was personable, informal, knowledgeable, enthusiastic and funny. She mistimed the lecture horribly so the first half of the notes took most of the time and the rest had to be squeezed into the remaining little bit, but never mind that. She conveyed such enthusiasm for the wonders of the kidney that it has almost overtaken diabetes as my possible future specialist area (but there's still plenty of time for that to change).

The main facts that have remained with me since the lecture are as follows:

1. You only need one kidney, as long as it works. They are that good.

2. Dialysis has transformed the care of kidney disease, effectively converting a fatal disease to a chronic condition, albeit at a reduced quality of life than with healthy kidneys.

3. As well as ridding the blood of waste products (e.g. urea), the other significant functions of the kidney are to secrete erythropoeitin (vital to the synthesis of red blood cells), make vitamin D, and control blood pressure through the renin-angiotensin system.

4. A kidney 'transplant' is not really a transplant, because the old kidney stays where it is, and a new one is plumbed in between the old one and the bladder. It's really a kidney implant. So someone who has had six kidney 'transplants' will have six kidneys, only one of which will be working.

5. Dietary therapy for later stages of kidney disease consists of keeping sodium, potassium and phosphate intake low while trying to maintain the intake of protein and energy. This is pretty difficult, because protein is associated with phosphate in food, and nearly everything contains sodium and potassium.

At one point during the lecture, the lecturer mentioned some teaching that she had done with medical students. She had been talking about the difficulties of using BMI as a measure of obesity with kidney patients (who often have a good deal of water retention), and particularly with amputees.

Of course you will know that BMI is calculated by dividing a person's weight in kg by the square of their height in metres, and there are ways to correct for various issues such as water retention and amputation. She asked the students how their BMI calculation might be affected by amputation.

One of the students said, "After one amputation, BMI would go down, but then it would rise again with a second amputation."

She was puzzled by this answer, and asked him to explain.

"Well, after the first amputation the patient's weight would decrease, but after the second they'd be a whole lot shorter", he answered confidently.

I guffawed. I don't think anyone else laughed at all, or if they did, it was a quiet snicker. Just me, then.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover
The Door Into Summer
by Robert A Heinlein

"When Dan Davis is crossed in love and stabbed in the back by his business associates, the immediate future doesn't look too bright for him and Pete, his independent-minded tom cat. Suddenly, the lure of suspended animation, the Long Sleep, becomes irresistible and Dan wakes up thirty years later in the twenty-first century. He discovers that the robot household appliances he invented, far from having been stolen from him, have, mysteriously, been patented in his name."
I read this some time ago, and decided to buy it for Lola II as a birthday present. Being the kind of person I am, I obviously had to re-read it before giving it to her, being careful not to leave any evidence (I think this blog post might now have given it away). The book is good, and you should read it if you like time travel mysteries. Not quite as good as 'The Time Traveler's Wife', but beats the pants off Larry Niven (see below).

Image of the book cover
by Larry Niven

narrated by Patrick Cullen
"Pierson's puppeteers, strange, three-legged, two-headed aliens, have discovered an immense structure in a hitherto unexplored part of the universe - the Ringworld of the title. Frightened of meeting the builders of such a structure, the puppeteers set about assembling a team consisting of two humans, a puppeteer and a kzin, an alien not unlike an eight-foot-tall, red-furred cat, to explore it. But the expedition goes disastrously wrong when the ship crashlands and its motley crew faces a trek across thousands of miles of the Ringworld's surface."
I only downloaded this because it was free - a Christmas promotional gift for listeners to Leo Laporte's 'This Week In Tech' podcast. I'd been listening to his podcast for two or three years, but since downloading the book I've unsubscribed - it was getting far too long (regularly more than 90 minutes) and too flabby, and I just don't have the time. What about the book? Niven's writing is not brilliant but I do like the concept of the world he has invented. I wouldn't make my friends read it, but the narrator is excellent in this audio version.

Image of the book cover
The Wasp Factory
by Iain Banks

narrated by Peter Kenney
"Two years after I killed Blyth, I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I'd disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim. That's my score to date. Three. I haven't killed anybody for years, and don't intend to ever again. It was just a stage that I was going through."
I've read 'The Crow Road' by the same author and really enjoyed it, so I thought I'd try another. It's pretty bleak. The main character is slightly unhinged, but his past is revealed in such a matter-of-fact way that it seems the author is suggesting his personality isn't so far from normal. In fact, the whole thing is so far from normal that it loses credibility. I was a bit relieved when I finished it.

Image of the book cover
The King's General
by Daphne du Maurier

narrated by Juliet Stevenson
"Set in the seventeenth century, The King's General tells the story of a country and a family riven by war. Honor Harris is only eighteen when she first meets Richard Grenville, proud, reckless - and utterly captivating. But following a riding accident, Honor must reconcile herself to a life alone. As Richard rises through the ranks of the army, marries and makes enemies, Honor remains true to him, and finally discovers the secret of Menabilly."
I imagine that this reflects a fairly accurate picture of what went on in Cornwall and Devon during the Civil War, and it's very evocative of the good times and bad. Aside from the historical detail, we have an unusual love affair between two interesting characters, and I cried at the end. So that's good.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Playing truant

If you're standing, sit down, I have some shocking news for you. Ready? Well, I didn't go to school on Friday, and I wasn't ill - I bunked off. Yes, a morning and afternoon of lectures that I should have attended, I wasn't there, I was at home reading and writing about constipation* and making tea for Alf.

Newly painted front doorI had decided not to attend lectures before Alf phoned to say he was coming over for the day. There were a few reasons: the usual wonderful lecturer was away and had delegated to a much less experienced chap, and I was starting to get far too stressed about coursework. I thought I would be able to get ahead by spending an extra day not usually available for working. And the afternoon lecturer on pharmacology has already given us the handouts and doesn't usually add much during the actual lectures. It's just a pity the lecture I missed was about drug interactions and adverse drug reactions, which sounds quite interesting.

I have reached the point, and gone well beyond it actually, where I am no longer spending time on things because they are interesting. They are still interesting, but the workload at the moment means I spend exactly as much time on things as it takes to get them finished - by the 80/20 rule, I used to spend the extra 20% of time making everything wonderful - not any more. Something's finished, it gets put aside, I read through it one more time before handing it in, to pick out typos or anything obvious I've missed. That's it.

Dilapidated side doorIt has turned out to be a good idea to spend Friday on coursework, because I was finally pushed over the filth threshold into housework. I've mentioned before that our house is shockingly dirty and neither of us is doing much about it. After a day when Alf renovated the front door and door frame and finished a couple of walls with plaster skim, the state of floors, surfaces and assorted detritus could no longer be ignored (although Mr A seems to have an astronomically high tolerance for filth). Instead of school work on Saturday, I spent pretty much the whole day cleaning up. So I exchanged a day at school for a day of cleaning, and didn't gain any time for more coursework at all.

The front door is beautiful now, a slightly more purply blue with a new handle and shining brass number 1, which it has lacked for several years. The next job will have to be the side door between the house and the garage, even though we would like to finish the bathroom sooner. The door has been in a poor state for a long time, and this winter it has pretty much rotted away.

Now while you're sitting down, there's another bombshell to report. Smurf is leaving the pub. In just one week, he will be handing over to another landlord/manager, and disappearing from our lives, perhaps for ever. You can perhaps imagine our sadness, but it has been a great two years while he's been in charge.

* I feel that having mentioned writing about constipation, you might be slightly interested in the subject. I'll save it for another post, though.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

More of Lola II's birthday

Lots of wrapped presents
As we left the last exciting birthday episode, Mr A and I were waiting for Lola II in a pub. I'm still not entirely sure how we managed to stay awake for two hours past our normal bedtime, but we made it.

The next day was filled with fun and games, literally. Lots of Lola II's friends came to visit, we ate pizza and we played games. Actually, just one game, because there were ten of us and it went on for quite a long time. But a good game, and Mr A won. So that was nice too. Then some of the guests went home, we ate Chinese food, some more of the guests went home and we retired exhausted.

At this point, I shall switch from focussing on Lola II to the usual subject: it's all about me. I would like to confess one of my failings as a human being: presents. I'm not particularly good at presents. Birthday presents, Christmas presents, wedding presents - I find them all a bit difficult, what with finding time to go to the shops (which I hate), choosing the right thing at the right price, wrapping it, labelling, finding a card to go with it, and then handing it over on or near the relevant date. I'd much rather bake a random cake when someone's not expecting anything instead of sticking to a conventional present-and-card on a particular day, the way that everyone else seems to operate.

With Lola II, I try a bit harder than with most people, but she still doesn't get many presents from me, and if I do manage to get her something I usually hand it over unwrapped in a plastic carrier bag on a random date. One year I really tried hard, and bought two things for her birthday some months beforehand, wrapped them nicely, and then when I handed them over on the right day, I'd completely forgotten what they were. Which was exciting, because it was as much a surprise to me as it was to her.

So this year, a special year when her age has a zero in it, I thought I'd try and do better. I started making a list before Christmas of things I know she likes, and bought them, wrapped them all up, labelled them, and found a card, and then hid them all over her house. I even kept a list of what they all were (so no surprises for me this time), and since we visited I have been drip-feeding her a daily present. The only aspect I have failed on is that several of them are wrapped in Christmas paper, but you can't have everything.

So Happy Birthday Lola II, I hope you like the presents (there are still a few to come)!

Lola II in 1974 looking angelic with a daisy chain crownLove yow.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Lola II's Birthday Extravaganza!

Hello, Lola II here. With the enormous amount of homework my lovely sister Lola I is having to do, she has asked me to update the blog with the latest news. In particular, the passing of my 40th birthday weekend celebrations.

I will spread my report into a couple of postings mainly because, after many years trying, I still seem incapable of describing any kind of excitement succinctly.

So the adventures began on Friday, my actual birthday. The National Gallery is my favourite place in London and I very much enjoy their free Friday night tours of the collection, often with our father. I have absorbed a little over the years and decided that, for my 40th, I would invite friends for drinks in the gallery restaurant, followed by a private guided tour of the collection, ending with a 3-course dinner back in the restaurant.

What I didn't tell anyone was that I was giving the tour myself. I had looked into getting someone from the gallery to lead it but the £200 charge for an hour seemed excessive. Besides, I enjoy public speaking and I love giving surprises, so it would be good fun.

Sadly Lola I and Mr A couldn't make it. Lola did her best to see if she could bunk off her Friday classes so that they could make it down to London in time. Unfortunately, being the conscientious student that she is, she decided that she couldn't miss the lectures. Though choosing her studies over me would ordinarily be viewed as a gross breach of loyalty, I forgave her instantly because a) she really does have a lot on her plate, b) she was still coming down late Friday night and staying until Sunday, and c) she really is terribly lovely.

Back to the gallery. To start, we had our own special cordoned off area in the restaurant. As my guests arrived a pattern emerged. Firstly they would walk past where we were and I'd go racing after them. Then there was relief that they had found me and their surprise that I was wearing quite a glamorous dress. And shoes with heels! Then I would comment in an excited fashion "I HAVE A CORDONED OFF AREA IN THE NATIONAL GALLERY!!" and then they would be allowed past the deep red velvet rope and squeezed in with others for wine and nibbles.

Finally the moment arrived to lead everyone to the start of the tour and I explained that I hadn't been entirely truthful; that I would, in fact, be giving the tour myself. I had chosen four paintings:

painting of The Exhumation of St Hubert#1: The Exhumation of Saint Hubert (late 1430's) by Rogier van der Weyden (1399-1464)

St Hubert lived for 70 years until the year 727. He was the first Bishop of Liège and is the Patron Saint of hunters, mathematicians, opticians & metalworkers. He was invoked to cure rabies until the early twentieth century through the use of the traditional St Hubert's Key

I'll leave you to look up the story behind the picture but I chose this painting because van der Weyden does an incredible job in his depiction of emotion and grief. Take a close look at the expressions on faces, they're fantastic.

painting of Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan#2 Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan (1538) by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543)

At the age of eleven Christina was married by proxy to the Duke of Milan, who later died. At 16, she was then one of the most eligible brides in Europe and that is when she came to the attention of Henry VIII. The latest of his wives, Jane Seymour, had died in childbirth so he was looking for a fourth...

In 1538, Thomas Cromwell sent Holbein to Brussels to draw the duchess for the King to see her likeness. It seems she was quite wary and said "if I had two heads, I would happily put one at the disposal of the King of England".

This is Holbein's only surviving full-length portrait of a woman and I love the fact that I am looking at something that Henry VIII also looked at.

painting of The Toilet of Venus ('The Rokeby Venus')#3 The Toilet of Venus ('The Rokeby Venus') 1647-51 by Diego Velázquez (1599-1660)

I find this painting interesting because the reflection of Venus in the mirror (being held by Cupid) doesn't quite fit. The face itself doesn't match our view of the rest of her; the angle and size doesn't look right. Over the years the oil paint has become transparent and with the help of infra-red the original lines can be seen, suggesting that Venus was actually sitting up more with her face turned more to the left - this therefore may be the reason for the squiffy reflection.

painting of Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus#4 Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus (1829) by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851)

Interestingly, we gathered a few ordinary visitors who thought that they were joining an official tour. Afterwards we wondered what they must have thought when I stood in front of this painting and said "I really don't like Turner, his paintings are just such a mess...".

However, as I told my audience, the more you look at this painting, the more you see - it appears like a story magically appearing from the fog.


Dinner was a three-course delight, complemented by an enormous shock when a waitress came up behind me with a candle in a cupcake, blasting out Happy Birthday. Then our sister, D, stood up to speak. It turns out that my friend, SR, had secretly gathered photos and comments from all my friends & family into an amazing beautiful album. Beautiful.

looking at my birthday album view of my guests at dinner

Home to Lola I & Mr A who were patiently waiting for us in a pub, and then on to Day 2 of the celebrations...