Friday, 30 September 2011

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover
The Island of Sheep
by John Buchan

"A long-forgotten promise made by Richard Hannay finds him honour-bound to resolve a violent vendetta in which the lives of a young father and his daughter are in danger from unscrupulous and desperate men. Hannay sets out on a high-octane chase from the rural tranquillity of his English manor to the Scottish Borders and, ultimately, to Scandinavia."
The last in this compendium of five John Buchan stories about Richard Hannay, and apparently the last book that he wrote. This time the final scene of good overcoming evil was unexpectedly short, given how protracted the previous battles have been. It's pretty good again - the only slightly weak book of the series was Greenmantle, which was too complicated and 'of its time' for me to follow. But The Thirty-Nine Steps is definitely the best, followed by The Three Hostages.

Image of the book cover
Challenging Obesity: the science behind the issues
by Heather McLannahan and Pete Clifton (eds.)

"There are strong individual differences in body weight, and hardly a month goes by without the announcement of yet another gene 'for' obesity, with discussion of the implications for those who hope to reduce their body weight. How should individuals and governments respond to the different challenges of obesity?"
This book told me nothing that I didn't already know, which is a pleasing reflection on my recent educational and personal journey. Obesity is caused by an excess of energy intake over energy expenditure, but this definition does not reflect the complications of the statement. There are no easy answers or quick fixes, and a number of behavioural, pharmaceutical and environmental solutions are being sought in both the private and the public sector. We just have to eat less and do more, but how this will be achieved is one of the most challenging questions faced by those working in the health and government sectors today.

Image of the book cover
Titus Groan
by Mervyn Peake

"Titus, heir to Lord Sepulchrave, has just been born: he stands to inherit the miles of rambling stone and mortar that form Gormenghast Castle, and its surrounding kingdom. Inside, all events are predetermined by a complex ritual, lost in history, understood only by Sourdust, Lord of the Library. There are tears and strange laughter; fierce births and deaths beneath umbrageous ceilings; dreams and violence and disenchantment contained within a labyrinth of stone."
It's not often that I encounter unfamiliar words: 'calid' and 'lambent' were two (they mean 'warm' and 'illuminated, radiant' respectively), and that's the whole beauty of this book. There's not much story, and what there is moves dreadfully slowly and is quite peculiar, but the language is beautiful, even if it does go on a bit. I'm not even sure that 'umbrageous' (in the quote above) is a real word, but its meaning is clear and it evokes perfectly the dark, cloudy environment of Gormenghast Castle. Part 2 of the trilogy is waiting in the pile To Be Read.

Image of the book cover
The Mark of Zorro
by Johnston McCulley

narrated by B. J. Harrison
"Old California, in a bygone era of sprawling haciendas and haughty caballeros, suffers beneath the whip-lash of oppression. Missions are pillaged, native peasants are abused, and innocent men and women are persecuted by the corrupt governor and his army. But a champion of freedom rides the highways. His identity hidden behind a mask, the laughing outlaw Zorro defies the tyrant's might."
The original story that spawned a hundred more tales and movies. It was originally published as a serial, which always means a cliffhanger at the end of each chapter, but it didn't seem contrived or forced, and was unexpectedly gripping. The American narrator didn't have any unfortunate English or French proper names to struggle with, and any Mexican/Spanish errors would have passed me by, so there were no jarring notes in the reading either. A good listen!

Image of the book cover
If You Could See Me Now
by Cecilia Ahern

"Elizabeth Egan is too busy for friends. As a reluctant mother to her sister Saoirse's young son Luke and with her own business to run, every precious moment is made to count. Enter Ivan. Wild, spontaneous and always looking for adventure, in no time at all Ivan has changed Elizabeth in ways she could never have imagined. But is Ivan too good to be true? Has Elizabeth opened her heart only to risk it being broken again?"
I don't often read this type of book - modern fiction with a straightforward story - and I got through the whole thing in a day. It played on the theme of the invisible or imaginary friend, and I shall probably spend a few minutes toying with the idea, thinking it through, and then I'll forget all about it in a week. It's refreshing to take on some lighter reading occasionally, some froth to temper the heaviness of my usual non-fiction and weighty authors, but with its pink cover, it's never going to make it into the company of books I intend to read again one day.

Image of the book cover
How to Eat: The pleasures and principles of good food
by Nigella Lawson

"Nigella Lawson combines a refreshingly down-to-earth practically with a passion for food and a writer's ability to find just the right words to evoke the taste of a succulent roast chicken or a home-made custard. Her excellent advice on how to organise your kitchen (and your life) for the minimum of fuss is interspersed with moments of sheer, unadulterated pleasure as she pauses to relish what she is preparing to eat. "
This is a very thick book from back in 1998, at the start of Nigella's meteoric career towards Kitchen Goddess status. It's been on my shelf for ever, although I must have read at least some of it when I first got it. There are irrelevant (to me) chapters on food for children and for dinner parties, but a contrastingly useful and interesting one on low calorie options, which I fully endorse since it strongly emphasises oriental options that are naturally low in fat, although she doesn't seem to hold with the notion of moderation in salt intake. I've highlighted about ten recipes that I wouldn't mind trying, and in fact I cooked one last night: a coating for salmon that was very good indeed.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

A diversion

Sofa-based construction site
Some readers may be interested in the fate of Mr A, who is mostly revising for his exams at the moment, and enjoying it about as much as I remember enjoying mine, which is: not much. He continues to entertain me, however, with his latest interest - the construction of a balsa wood model plane, which he is carrying out on a large board on his lap in the evenings. And his other indulgence - an evening class he has signed up to, which he tells me is better than any he has ever done in the past. It is a welding class at the local college. He is currently practising his TiG welding skills with a view to constructing a ski-bike and bits and pieces for his motorbikes (e.g. a sump guard).

Otherwise, life goes on. The garden has never had so much attention, and the paved area is now vegetation-free, although the lawn is a dreadful mess of moss and various other weeds. I still haven't embarked on any DIY around the house, but it is becoming more difficult to put it off. Still no word on any of my job applications, but I went to a BDA1 local branch meeting and fed my brain with presentations on vitamin D, psychological approaches to behavioural change, and IBS2. I'm still playing badminton twice a week, and the newer club is becoming slightly more friendly - or more accurately, I've started to identify the less friendly members and avoid them.

And that's about it. No adventures or misadventures, no excitement, just niggling frustration that repainting the plasterwork of the kitchen ceiling is something that I really should get started on.

1 British Dietetic Association
2 Irritable Bowel Syndrome, aka Functional Bowel Disorder

Saturday, 24 September 2011


Leafy scene from Leamington in September
Morale has risen slightly since the early part of the week, probably due to my teaching session going very well. It is not surprising that I was at sixes and sevens after having my interview persona criticised, albeit in a helpful and positive way. An hour of being told how you could do better is pretty much guaranteed to leave you thinking that you're not very good really. An hour of standing in front of class doing something quite well that you actually enjoy raises the spirits in a compensatory manner.

The session was a Masters module about communication skills aimed at health professionals. There were only three in the class, but two tutors sat in as well. I was talking about my previous life working with blind and partially sighted people, and how communication in a healthcare setting can be disrupted by something unfamiliar like visual impairment. After running through some facts and figures, we went through both practical information about the effects of sight loss on everyday life, and the possible emotional and psychological consequences.

As I reflect on the experience, it occurs to me that I have a great deal of useful experience and expertise in one-to-one consultations, group presentations and teaching situations. I should be more confident about these skills if I ever get an interview.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Thoughts on interviews

Pond at Winterbourne House
Forgive me, it is many days since I last wrote my insignificant thoughts. There has been a weekend, I have had a slight cold, I have planted daffodil bulbs, and we are having trouble with the TV.

The aerial cable seems to be dodgy, and the second-hand Freeview box has turned out to be rather temperamental - it takes several seconds to acknowledge any command it is sent, if it acknowledges it at all. If we want to watch a program (and there have been just a couple) then we need to start trying to change channel about 5 minutes before it is due to begin. I think Mr A would do something about this if he were not revising full time, but I don't care enough about broadcast TV to get involved. I'm happy with our DVDs, which are terrific - we finished the last series of The Wire, which was incredibly good, and are in the midst of the BBC version of I Claudius from the 1970's, which isn't bad, and surprised us with a young Patrick Stewart (with hair), and how much better they can do makeup nowadays - the old Claudius looks like he's wearing a Halloween mask.

I have been working on my teaching session, and yesterday I discussed it with the main tutor of the course I will be contributing to - she likes it a lot, and suggested how we might do the role play, as she has plenty of experience in that area and I have none. I also spent an hour with two experienced dietitians, talking about how I might improve my job applications and interview technique.

I am getting myself a bit worked up about interviews. Recruiting basic grade dietitians through a 30-minute interview seems to me to be a way of selecting the people who are good at doing interviews. Acting skills are rewarded almost as much as depth of knowledge, and I am not and have never been able to act. I can think of many people who would be a nightmare to work with, but whose ability to think on their feet and come up with a confident answer is outstanding.

This view may be coloured by the horrendous last interview I had before leaving my previous job, which took the form of an 'Assessment Centre' - a whole day of different types of activity designed to test different aspects of personality. The only thing that it didn't seem to test was a sound knowledge of the area of work involved, which was what I knew best, having done the job for some time. The successful candidate was the internal 'ringfenced' candidate who had been made redundant from another area, and she did a pretty bad job for as long as it took her to find a way to get out. One of the candidates had had enough by lunchtime and didn't stay for the afternoon. I met another of the candidates a few weeks later, and he told me that not only would he not have accepted the job if it had been offered to him, but he wouldn't even consider applying for any others in that organisation based on what he had gone through.

I have been on the other side of the table, as a recruiter too, and I'm not much good at that either. It seems to me that with a huge pool of unemployed graduate dietitians, all of whom will meet the essential requirements of a basic NHS post, it would save an enormous amount of time and effort if applicants just submitted their names and referees and one applicant was picked at random from all those meeting the essential criteria, given the job on a 6-month temporary basis, and then kept on if they turn out OK. We wouldn't have to spend ages on writing applications and undergoing stressful interviews, recruiters wouldn't have to spend ages reading applications and interviewing people, and I bet that 90% of appointments would turn out OK.

Anyway, the outcomes of my discussion about applications and interviews was mixed. They thought that I could be more succinct in my application, but suggested that I be more specific about why I want that particular job, even though both I and the recruiter are well aware that I don't really care what job I get at this stage. They thought that I was perfectly presentable, but perhaps should dress a bit smarter, to the extent of wearing low heels and a suit, even though this was understood by both sides to be an interview thing and any dietitian wearing heels or a suit in the real job would be classed as probably slightly mad, and definitely overdressed.

In terms of 'model' answers to questions, which seems to be the essence of interview success, I struggle. Of course I know a lot of stuff, but it might actually be easier if I knew a bit less, because I have trouble picking out the stuff that the interviewer actually wants to hear. Of all the things you might tell a person who has been newly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, what are the two most important points? My first reaction is always: 'It depends'. Tell them to cut down on sugary drinks - what if they don't drink any? But my reservations apply to the real world, not to interviews. In interviews, you have to say what they want to hear, in black and white, and not enter the grey and murky world of 'it depends'.

So I have all the answers in my head, and my main problem is that faced with a question, I have trouble retrieving the answer and delivering it as required. Of course, all this deliberation is hypothetical until I actually get an interview - there have been no suitable jobs advertised since the run of five last week, and although four of those five vacancies are now closed to applications, I have heard nothing yet.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Job applications

Pickles and olives on a stall at the food festival
I am aware that my postings continue along the theme of "What I Did While I Was Looking For A Job", and that this isn't particularly intellectually captivating. As soon as I get a job, I'm certain that there will be more stimulating posts along the lines of "What I'm Allowed To Say About Dietetics Without Breaching Patient Confidentiality". In the meantime, I'm doing a lot of reading.

I have put in five more job applications this week, and I live in hope that the vacancy lottery eventually results in another interview. I haven't had an interview for two months, but I will be meeting a retired manager of a dietetic service next week, who I hope will give me some idea whether I could do anything differently.

I have been working on my teaching session, which also takes place next week. I alternate between being thoroughly nervous and supremely confident about it. My (ex-)tutor obviously believes that I will be fine, otherwise she wouldn't have asked me to do it, and what's the worst that can happen? But she will be there, observing, and let it never be said that I ever was content to do less than the best job that can be done. So no pressure there, then.

I have a couple of dietetic subjects that I would actually like to research and write about - probiotics, and the evidence behind recommending breakfast - one because it affects a friend and the other because it affects me. But I have also talked to Mr A about doing some DIY, and he is most encouraging, and even fetched some sandpaper for me. All the other minor jobs on the list have been crossed off, but somehow I am still procrastinating.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Food, drink and TV

Cakes of Italian nougat segments
The Food and Drink Festival was back at the weekend, and better than ever. I couldn't be bothered to go on the Taste Trail this time because neither Lola II nor Mr A would be with me, and all that food doesn't go well with weight loss. They've learned from previous years, too - the Trail was free the first time, then we paid a pound for entry last time, but this time they're charging a pound per restaurant, which is only right.

Cake stallThere were more stalls than in previous years in the Pump Room Gardens, and most were mouth-wateringly attractive, although the produce was not cheap. We met some neighbours and got talking about pheasants, and I now have the opportunity (when the season starts) to learn how to draw and pluck a freshly-shot bird. I bought a couple of things (German salami and Warwickshire sausages) and came home, then enticed Mr A out again for lunch. He chose paella, I had a very tasty vegetable Thai green curry with rice. Mr A bought a couple of things (a venison pie and a pork pie, local cheeses) and that was it.

In other news, a job vacancy came up over the weekend which I applied for, and we attempted to install Freeview. Our turn has come for digital switchover and the removal of analogue terrestrial broadcasting to our area. It should have been straightforward, but our analogue TV is old and there is the added complication of the BARB monitoring device which is wired in to our setup in a manner that I couldn't fathom. So they are sending a chap round this week to sort us out. In the meantime we have some extra BBC channels and we have lost ITV until the second phase of switchover in a couple of weeks. It hardly makes a difference at all, and we can still watch our DVDs, so everything's fine really.

Friday, 9 September 2011


Newly planted house plants in a trough in the hall
I have been 'busy', in a relative way, over the past few days. Not 'busy' like someone who has a proper job and family commitments that include children, for example. That sort of 'busy' is in another league - my sort of 'busy' means that I have done at least one thing off my list every day. Which isn't very much. I am very lucky to be only this 'busy', but am aware that it cannot last for ever, not least because the fuel bills are rocketing ever skywards and I am starting to become very slightly envious of people who go out for meals. There haven't been any suitable jobs advertised for a fortnight, but I remain hopeful.

Things that I have crossed off my list include the wildflower meadow that was the paved area behind the house. It is mostly weed-free now, although a few remain to taunt me. I bought a glyphosate squirter that has made a good deal of difference, although given that it only kills weeds and not seeds, I think I will invest in larger quantities of glyphosate and a watering can, so that the green menace can be kept at bay over the longer term.

I have sorted out my dwindling collection of house plants, binning those that were really showing no sign of life and repotting the few that are left. I have planted up a trough with some new plants for the hallway, and split an aspidistra that had pretty much already divided itself into two within the one pot. I also treated myself to a Venus Flytrap and an African Violet for the kitchen windowsill. We'll see how long they survive.

The houseplant endeavour led to a foray into the garage where my collection of plastic plant pots has lived for, oh, ten years. Before that, they lived happily in my previous residences. It is, however, time for us to part. They are now sorted into two groups - I shall keep some, and have already advertised the rest on Freegle. Nearly everything relating to organic matter is, at last, somewhat under control, and I am slowly emptying the house of unnecessary junk.

I have also spent a day working on my teaching session about visual impairment and communication, and badminton continues twice a week. This morning I dropped in on the group of visually impaired people that I tapped into for my university project, just because I can and because they are rather nice. After that I dropped in at the Oxfam second-hand book shop, and for £3 I bought a guide to garden birds and how to attract them. We are lucky to have sparrows in our garden, as they have become relatively rare.

I'm now off to attend to the next task - our area has started to move from analogue to digital TV, and we have started to lose the few channels we have. I'm going to attempt to install the Freeview box.

Collection of plant pots on the garden table

Monday, 5 September 2011

Nothing much

Some sort of plant forming black rosettes on thick stems
I am in need of another guest blogger. Mr A says he will write something, but can't seem to get started, and he has a lot of more important things to do. This time, then, just another brief account of mundane Lola life.
  • The loft insulation went well at mum and dad's house, and with its new load of insulation, the loft now has a peculiar smell which I don’t like very much. The fibreglass also bit me on the arm when I switched the light on and off without sleeves. The man who installed it all was very nice, helped me take down some of the larger boards that weren’t needed, and did the whole job on his own in not much more than an hour.
  • Two of my job applications are still viable, although the closing dates were 25 and 31 August and I haven't heard anything about an interview from either.
  • I have been fiddling about with my email, contacts and calendar, because many of my messages were routinely not reaching Lola II. So I've transferred from Outlook and am now completely in thrall to Google, and am in trouble if for any reason Google dies or takes a dislike to me.
I think it is time to get back into the garden - that ivy won't trim itself.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

I am considering DIY

Pink flowers on a bright shelf with ornaments and wicker baskets
Given that I have time rather than money at the moment, I am considering the jobs around the house and thinking about doing them myself. Either this will come to a messy end, or immense satisfaction at having achieved something practical will result.

Mr A has a large manual of all things DIY, which is very helpful. I know that my skill set includes whatever it takes to re-hang a door or replace a small carpet, and preparing and painting walls is not at all difficult. I don't know how to repair/replace a door frame, but how hard can it be? I also know that the results are likely to be better than when we Get A Man In. But I think that I will find it frustrating and annoying.

It started with the wall lights, which required drilling. I am not bad at drilling; I did quite a lot when I was living on my own in Manchester. I did quite a lot of DIY in that flat, including mending the pump on the basement toilet macerator unit, which I felt was quite an achievement. But Mr A has taken over my drill, and when I asked him for drill bits he brought two, one of which turned out to be bent and the other a bit rusty. If I take on this set of DIY projects, I will have to reclaim the drill and keep my own bits. Mr A did the drilling for the wall lights in the end, and I felt like a pathetic wifey, even though I asked him to do it.

So it isn't difficult, but when Mr A and I were both working it was much easier to get a man in. That tactic wasn't necessarily the right one in this old and temperamental house, and some of the results have been much less successful than if we had done the work ourselves - while our current choice of plumber is probably competent at installations, I'm not so sure about their troubleshooting and repair.

But before I start on any rash DIY projects here, I am off to assist at a loft insulation event at mum and dad's. This will include some possible ebay and Freegle activity, in order to avoid replacing the contents of the emptied loft. Wish me luck!