Sunday, 30 October 2011

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover

Anna Karenina
by Leo Tolstoy

narrated by Judy Franklin

"Anna Karenina is beautiful, married to a successful man, and has a son whom she adores. But a chance meeting at a train station in Moscow sets her passionate heart alight, and she is defenceless in the face of Count Vronsky's adoration. Having defied the rules of 19th-century Russian society, Anna is forced to pay a heavy price. "
Tolstoy is a breeze compared with Dostoevsky, and the story is engaging and easy to follow, despite its length - a mammoth 35½ hours. Luckily I had plenty of car journeys, and it was the ideal accompaniment to painting the kitchen ceiling. While Anna, her husband and Vronsky feature quite a lot, there are plenty of other stories going on - Anna's brother and his sister-in-law have their own adventures, of equal interest. I was given a print version long, long ago as a school prize, and I'm sure I read it too, but at that age I certainly didn't gain any insight into the Russian world at that period - land economy, a shooting party, local politics, class distinctions - and I'm sure I missed some points on this reading that a Russian or historical scholar would notice. It tails off rather than ending, but apart from that it was a good read.

Image of the book cover

by Charlotte Bronte

"Written at a time of social unrest, the book is set during the period of the Napoleonic Wars, when economic hardship led to riots in the woollen district of Yorkshire. A mill-owner, Robert Moore, is determined to introduce new machinery despite fierce opposition from his workers; he ignores their suffering, and puts his own life at risk. Robert sees marriage to the wealthy Shirley Keeldar as the solution to his difficulties, but he loves his cousin Caroline."
This book doesn't have the passion of Jane Eyre, nor the sweeping plot, but has historical detail instead. Rather than the characters or the plot, the most interesting thing for me was the discovery that at the time of writing, 'Shirley' was a man's name, only becoming associated with women as a result of this novel. All progresses and ends as it should, of course, but for me there were too many subsidiary characters, most of them associated with the church - I don't really know the difference between a vicar, rector, curate and parish priest, but it seemed to matter. And it's stuffed full of references to biblical and Graeco-Roman characters, all of which made me feel I was missing something. Meh.

Image of the book cover

The Help
by Kathryn Stockett

narrated by Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer, Cassandra Campbell

"Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. Aibileen is a black maid raising her seventeenth white child. Minny, Aibileen's best friend, is the sassiest woman in Mississippi: a wonderful cook with a gossip's tongue. Graduate Skeeter returns from college with ambitions, but her mother will not be happy until she's married. Although worlds apart, Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny's lives converge over a clandestine project that will change the town of Jackson forever."
This was a freebie from the Observer newspaper, and I'm very glad it was, because it's an absolutely brilliant book. Really excellent, and worth hearing rather than reading because the deep South accents of the narration added a wonderful extra dimension and authenticity. The book ends at about the time I was born, and it's sobering to hear the degree of casual and institutional racism at that time, not all that long ago, albeit in southern USA. Well worth reading, and a great accompaniment to shower room renovation. The film of the book has just been released in this country, and is getting good reviews.

Image of the book cover
The Shakespeare Secret
by J. L. Carrell

"A deadly serial killer is on the loose, modelling his sickening murders on Shakespeare's plays. But why is he killing? And how can he be stopped?"
In contrast to that last wonderful book, this one was appalling. It's a 'Da Vinci Code' ripoff, substituting Shakespeare for Leonardo, and consisting of a Shakespeare expert chasing around the world following 'clues' to try and find a lost Shakespeare play, shadowed by a murderer who threatens her and kills off various people who help her. I wasn't in the least bit interested in any of the characters, couldn't follow the tortuous relationships either in the present day or in the flashbacks to the 17th century, and didn't care about any of it. Rather than pass this book on as soon as humanly possible, I'm tempted to throw it in the bin, and I NEVER do that.

Image of the book cover
Stephen Fry in America
by Stephen Fry

"Stephen Fry has always loved America, in fact he came very close to being born there. Here, his fascination for the country and its people sees him embarking on an epic journey across America, visiting each of its 50 states to discover how such a huge diversity of people, cultures, languages, beliefs and landscapes combine to create such a remarkable nation."
Obviously being a fan of the great Fry this went down very well. The book to accompany the TV series, it consists of short chapters covering highlights of his time in each state, mostly visits to just one or two towns or attractions. In the case of Delaware, he just drove through and didn't really see anything, and Ohio missed out too, but most of the time there was at least something that drew his attention. Very light reading.

Image of the book cover
Dawdling by the Danube: With Journeys in Bavaria and Poland
by Edward Enfield

"Edward Enfield sets off on his latest cycling trip, carrying few preconceptions but plenty of wit, along the banks of the Danube from Passau to Vienna, taking in castles, churches and good food along the way. As Edward amply reveals in this charming book, there is no place from which to see a country that is nearly as good as the saddle of a bicycle."
Acquired (at very low cost) because of a trip along the Danube planned for next year. Very short, easy to read, gently humorous and mostly interesting. It isn't terribly informative about the tourist sights, but if I ever wished to go on a long-distance cycling trip in Germany or Austria, I'd probably take his advice. But it's even lighter (and shorter) than the Stephen Fry above, so I'll be attacking something with a bit more heft next.

Friday, 28 October 2011

500th Blog Post Celebratory Quiz

Hello, Lola II here.

Lola has very kindly invited me to post her 500th blog. What an honour! And what a lovely Blog. Well done Lola I, and here's to the next 500!

So here's the quiz: What do the following items have in common:

picture of washing up sponges
a zimmer frame
chocolate mousse

The answer?? Our daddy, of course! Read on to find out why.

I regularly browse Lola I's past blog postings in a random fashion. I enjoy being faced with unexpected memories I've put aside, in anticipation of all the future fun.

Well, browsing back reminded me that this time last year I wrote all about our mummy, and it's about time our daddy got the same gift. So here's a post to right that wrong. Or if his name was Mr Rong, it would be to write that Rong...

Dad has many admirable qualities. Show him something broken and he'll fix it in a blink of an eye. Nowadays Dad single-handedly supports the old-fashioned attitude of FIX IT, DON'T THROW IT OUT. That's a value that has seeped its way down to his three daughters, on the odd occasion... He has high standards and is a thorough finisher of those many DIY projects. My personal favourite was the practical and effective repair to his headphones. The pads got thin and so he repaired it using washing-up sponges. What a vision to behold!

Give Dad a roast chicken and he'll have a lovely munch whilst performing an autopsy (a leftover from his medical training). He will happily tell you what it died from, and then proudly announce that the delicious bird "did not die in vain".

What are his loves? A good joke, Mum's chocolate mousse (impossible to recreate by anyone else), family gatherings, cheese, television, books, and the internet. He'll do anything for a rendition of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. Dad knows so much about Herod that the National Geographic channel interviewed him for a programme on what Herod probably died of.

What is our Daddy good at? Explaining things; he's very clear thinking so that his explanation hits the mark first time - the relief was enormous when I didn't understand maths at school. Dad is a good listener (if he can hear you...), he is always pleased to hear from the family, and enjoys a good laugh.

Dad is good at drawing and also made a clay silouette of Mum's head. The carvings of heads from two pieces of driftwood are beautiful. We hold particularly fond memories of all the things he made out of zimmer frames; the contraption to hold the video under the tv, the dining room table extension, all manner of things for his lecture-giving days, the list is endless...

One day, many years ago, Dad very carefully cut walnuts in half, scraped out the contents and stuck them back together in order to make a walnut mobile. Unfortunately his hard work wasn't tidied away when Great Auntie Sylvia came to babysit. Upon his return home he discovered all his hard work smashed to smitherines, with Auntie Sylvia's comment ringing in his head - "you have some funny nuts this side of London".

Dad's currently trying to eat less. We all know how difficult it is, so WELL DONE, DAD. Keep at it and we'll be skipping around the boat together next October!


Monday, 24 October 2011

Adventures in Norfolk

The Guildhall in Norwich Market Square
Well, we had a few small adventures, which is unusual for us. My adventures usually happen with Lola II, not Mr A. We did a fair bit of sitting and reading in nice places too.

It is a surprisingly long journey to the Norfolk coast, but we arrived at the campsite in good time, put the tent up, got in a few extra provisions (milk for both of us, beer for Mr A, chocolate for me, and crisps for Mr A but we were on holiday so I had some too). The tent pole repair stood up beautifully and Mr A found a useful rug for the porch to protect the built-in groundsheet. It was unseasonably warm in the late afternoon as we sat in the tent porch and read, but the light fades early at this time of year, and the temperature dropped like a stone. So we went to the pub.

Lola II and I had walked to this pub so I knew how far it was, but we had done it in July while there was still daylight, and Mr A and I were walking there as night fell, and it was pitch black on the way back, with minimal verges at the side of the road and a surprising number of fast-moving vehicles. Never mind, we didn't get knocked over, it was a fine pub, but there was something strange going on. The dining area was set with white cloths and glassware; there seemed to be an awful lot of people crammed into the bar area, and then small snacks on cocktail sticks started appearing on platters from the kitchen.

When almost everyone was ushered into the dining rooms, we were left with three local drinkers in the bar.  Despite our natural British reserve we struck up a conversation, and this is how we found out the details of what was going on. A special gourmet night was being hosted by a local chef, Richard Bainbridge (from Michelin-starred Morston Hall down the road). They told us he's been on the telly and normally wears a flat cap, which obviously we didn't know. More importantly, the locals managed to intercept the next dish from the kitchen, so we even tasted the spelt bread and the 'Juniper foam' starter/amuse-bouche, courtesy of our new-found friends. We left before the main courses, but the trip was a great success, and was classed as our first adventure.

Rather than using proper camping sleeping bags, what we usually do is manufacture a replacement double bed with pillows and duvet. This time, Mr A was in charge of planning and assembling all the gear, and he had brought two old-style rectangular sleeping bags, three proper mummy-style sleeping bags, but no duvet. He'd brought his skiing thermals, but I hadn't. That first night was colder than either of us expected, and our cobbled-together sleeping arrangements were wholly inadequate. The second night I had three nested sleeping bags and Mr A had two; neither of us could move any of our limbs but we were both warm as toast.

Seals lying in the water and on the sand of Blakeney Point

Breakfast on Saturday was going to be tomato sandwiches, since that's what we'd brought at random from home. After such a cold night, Mr A was keen to abandon this plan, and we had a very satisfactory hot breakfast in the local town. The next adventure was seal-watching: common seals and grey seals are to be found on Blakeney Point, and various local enterprises will take you out by boat to see them. We got a good view of a decent number of seals, but it did feel very voyeuristic with three boats full of camera-wielding tourists plying back and forth in front of the basking seals. Slightly underwhelming as an experience, but enjoyable enough. A small marine adventure.

Because of the early nightfall, and also because there were some fairly noisy family parties at the campsite, we decided to spend Saturday evening at the cinema, and went to see 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' at the Cromer Mulitplex. A good night out and a good night's sleep thanks to our amended sleeping arrangements, then the postponed tomato sandwiches for breakfast and a trip to Norwich before heading home.

Norwich on Sunday morning was disappointing. It seemed to have nothing but the usual mainstream shops; the market was deserted and the only activity was in the big malls - even the 'cultural' attractions like the castle and museums were only open in the afternoon. Looking for a suitable spot for lunch was also a challenge, as there didn't even seem to be any suitable cafes or pubs other than the standard fast food emporia. We managed to find a newly-opened noodle bar in the end, but I'm not sure if it will survive - Norwich doesn't seem ready for a noodle bar.

The advertised attraction of the Colman's Mustard Museum did not live up to its billing either, as it turned out to be a mustard shop with a few artifacts and informational posters on the wall. The arcade where it was located was lovely - actually, the architecture of Norwich is rather wonderful, even if its contents had little to offer these two fussy tourists. The journey home was uneventful, and I've spent an enjoyable morning looking through the photos and writing this. Now I need to get on.

The columns and lion sculpture of Norwich City Hall

Friday, 21 October 2011

The morning after

Tendril over stones approaching water
Some of you whom I know in the real world will already be aware that my interview was unsuccessful; I didn't get either of the jobs on offer. I am feeling rather sorry for myself, and am tempted to write what I really feel about how recruitment is carried out, but in the hope that I will feel more positive soon, I shall resist that temptation.

This morning I submitted another application, and I have accepted some unpaid work that will bulk out my CV (not that it really needs any more bulk). Mr A and I also have cooked up a tentative plan that may result in some relevant work experience. So all is not doom and gloom, although I have to say that my mood has been a bit low for the last couple of days.

Never mind; Mr A did his last exam for the time being on Wednesday, fixed the dodgy tent pole yesterday, and we are just about to head off for a well-deserved weekend camping in Norfolk, probably at the same site that Lola II and I went to in July. The forecast is for moderate temperatures and no rain, which is all we could wish for at this time of year. Maybe there will be adventures, but more likely we will spend the weekend doing very little except finding nice places to sit and read books.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Not doing it myself for a bit

Image of round cacti viewed from above
I thought I'd take a short break from the shower project, so I cleaned everything up nicely so the room was usable again. Then I thought I'd celebrate by actually having a shower, but when I pressed 'go', absolutely nothing happened. Drat.

I hadn't turned off the mains power except when unscrewing and screwing back the base plates from the shower and the light pull-cords, and the light still worked. Mr A was working upstairs using his computer so I couldn't turn the power off to investigate. Later on when Mr A had finished for the day, we contemplated the situation. We knew it had to be electrical, probably a fuse, because the motor wasn't even trying to pump water. Suddenly I realised that there was another isolation switch, although I don't remember ever touching it. It was off. Turn it on - problem solved. First thought: 'thank goodness'. Closely followed by: 'what an idiot'.

Instead of decorating I have re-entered my comfort zone for a couple of days, and am focussing on normal household tasks for a day or two, including trying to work out which plan to choose when our gas and electricity contract ends. I booked train tickets for the next trip to London and contacted various people I'd like to see when I'm there. There was badminton, where it turned out that there was a men's match against the club I used to play for, so I could catch up with two of the nicest chaps from the olden days. I've been out looking for a mirror, and this one caught my eye - for the name, not the price, which is over £100. Ikea mirrors are a tenth of the price, and my reflection in them is pretty much the same.

I also got my clarinet out of its case for the first time in ages. Lola II and I have enrolled in a Woodwind Playday, so I have to become semi-proficient by January - there should be enough time. And finally, I was called upon for 'childcare' yesterday, picking up our friends' two children from after-school club and walking them home. I impressed upon them at the start that I wasn't a proper parent so they would have to take responsibility for not getting killed on the way, given that we were walking directly through town with rush hour traffic. They kept their side of the bargain perfectly. I would have been in terrible trouble if I'd let them get run over.

I should get the call about the interview today. Or tomorrow. They promised definitely by Friday. Gulp.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Done It Myself

The interview went well, I think. Or possibly, it didn't; I really have no way of knowing until they offer me the job (or not). As usual in the car on the way home and throughout the afternoon and evening I had many ideas about what I might have said or how I might have done better. I shall find out next week. It is unsettling.

Far wall of shower room
Otherwise, the tortuously slow pace of decorating continues, with purchase and application of paint, consideration (but not acquisition) of light fitting, mirror, towel rail, loo roll holder and toilet brush. The paint colour is Auburn Falls 2, a dark orange-red, and looks wonderful - even Mr A thinks so. There are only two small orange smudges on the white ceiling, although a bit of white ceiling paint came off with the masking tape, and I shall consider whether to address this fault or not.

After my interview we went for supper in the pub as a treat. It has become quite difficult to eat there, because the menu lacks anything at all that might be considered healthy, except for jacket potatoes. For example: three sausages in a Yorkshire pudding with gravy and potatoes. No vegetables at all. The vegetarian options apart from jacket potatoes are hardly better: bean burger with chips, or vegetable fajitas, which arrive swimming in oil. The largest vegetable accompaniment with some dishes is a small pot of peas, or a minuscule salad garnish. Even the sandwiches come with crisps.

Freshly painted walls and ceiling
On this occasion Mr A chose a pie (with chips) and I asked him to get me a lamburger (with chips). Unfortunately a combination of his diction and the barmaid's hearing resulted in us receiving a pie (with chips) and a 'Combo' platter, which contained battered fish, pie, sausage, chips, onion rings and fried chicken (and minuscule salad garnish). We took most of it home and had another meal out of it, where we could add vegetables to balance the protein, carbohydrate and fat. So I think we may choose other venues for impromptu and inexpensive dinners, unless we can wield some influence on Smurf's catering department.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

A trip north

Decorative shot of a group of cacti
I took a whole day off decorating duties yesterday to travel north to visit H and B, which was a great trip (apart from the M6 around Birmingham). They were kind enough to allow me to sit in on B's appointment with a dietitian, which made me think "Yes, I really can do that, and maybe I can even do it better." Good timing, what with tomorrow's interview. Then we took off to the Italian restaurant round the corner for lunch. I helped H to move a desk, and even assisted him in emptying the apartment in a small way by relieving him of one litre of Damp Seal paint, a lint-removing roller, a can of polish and several bedsheets. It all helps, he says.

On the way back I detoured to Ikea, ostensibly to look at their bathroom lighting and mirrors, but ended up buying a pepper grinder and two light bulbs. It's been a long time since I've been to Ikea, and I was impressed all over again at the great ideas that can be found there. Mostly in the kitchenware department, since that's what I'm most interested in - I would like to rip out my entire kitchen and replace everything using some of the ideas that Ikea comes up with. Even the storage jars, graters and chopping boards are lovely, and often have some feature that makes them so much more usable and useful.

The shower room decorating activity is therefore progressing slowly (especially as today's priority is interview preparation). Two coats of primer and a coat of matt white on the ceiling took a few days, interrupted not only by the trip north but also by the visit from Lola II and another job application. I have made a decision about the main colour, but I have yet to buy the paint or start applying it to the walls. Mr A has had his first exam, which he reported as 'OK', with the second one in a week's time. Revision continues.

Today is heavy duty interview preparation, and I have also learned a bit about the history of the destination town, its hospital and a little about the county's population demographic. And whether there are any badminton clubs there. All essential information prior to showing immense enthusiasm for the job, the department, the location and everything associated with it.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Breakdown and disease

Peaceful grass and trees in Leamington Spa
In between all this decorating stuff I've had some other challenges to face. I got in the car to go to badminton on Monday, and it promptly started to beep furiously about its alternator. "Ow, ow, ow, my alternator hurts! You're hurting my alternator! Stop it! Beep beep beep beep!" I bravely continued to drive, thinking that I was only going a couple of miles, I really wanted to play badminton, and if the worst happened I could abandon it, walk home, and sort it out tomorrow. The stupid car shouted and beeped at me all the way home again, and further desultory research on the Interwebs suggested either a replacement alternator (expensive) or that a tensioner or belt needs tightening (not quite as expensive).

Off it went to the garage on Wednesday, and they phoned to say that a) the alternator does need replacing and b) they wanted to keep it overnight, which gave me palpitations in terms of labour charges but turned out to be because the supplier sent the wrong part. Anyway, that complicated life a little more because Wednesday night was when I wanted to go to my first local Diabetes UK group meeting. Mr A was kind enough to make my neglected bicycle more roadworthy and lent me some lights for it, but after a day's painting I was not really looking forward to cycling, and took up the neighbours' offer to use their car. I'm glad I did, because it absolutely chucked it down with rain. We have very nice neighbours.

The Diabetes UK meeting featured a podiatrist talking about foot care, and as seems traditional in all the diabetic foot care lectures I've been to (quite a few) the pictures they use to illustrate the various perils of neglecting your feet are second in their gruesome nature only to images of patients with burns. This is probably because diabetic foot ulcers and their consequences are the second greatest cause of amputation, I learned, nudged from top spot by trauma (car accidents and the like). So it's a serious topic. I learned two other interesting things: what Charcot Foot is, and that there is no effective treatment for verrucas - you just wait until your body deals with the virus that causes them.

After the meeting I chatted to a couple of people, and there was a cup of tea and the sort of raffle where there were almost more prizes than tickets, including such treasures as a bottle of bubble bath, a pair of rubber gloves, a tray of four pears and a scented geranium. Having me attending the meeting probably reduced the average age of the attendees by quite a few years. I would like to go again, though - next month there's a speaker talking about the very latest advances in treatments for diabetes. And it's great fodder for job interviews.

Then there has been the failure of the TV, which has never been quite right since the switchover from analogue to digital. We put it down to the antiquated nature of the digibox, which I am sure was a contributing factor, but then all signal was lost altogether and we think it's probably because of the aerial. It wasn't a big deal except we do like to watch the news now and again, so after a modicum of research I was dispatched to Argos where I picked up the cheapest Freesat box that exists. Miraculously, the satellite dish left by the previous house owners ten years ago still works, so we now have 175 channels to choose from, and we'll still only watch the news and QI.

Lola II has been visiting, and accompanied me on a mammoth trip round town visiting charity shops in order to upgrade my interview outfit as per the advice previously received. Leamington really has some high quality charity shops, and there are an awful lot of them. For just £8 I now have an extremely smart tailored jacket and a shirt to go with it, so I'm not sure how they will be able to resist giving me the job.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Actually doing it myself

I am being constructive, and fully occupied, with this shower room project. I have taken all the horrid wallpaper off - some was hanging off already, but it's all gone properly now, revealing walls and a ceiling. As you might expect, there are four walls and a ceiling, but one of the walls is fully tiled, and the ceiling has a horizontal part and a slanty part under the sloping roof. So there are three wall surfaces and two ceiling surfaces.

Shower room far wall ready for painting
The surface of the horizontal part of the ceiling is wood, and not chipboard or MDF but proper wood with a grain, and so is a box section that contains some of the pipes to the shower. The sloping ceiling surface is plasterboard, some of it painted and some bare where the paint peeled off with the paper. The three walls are old and pitted plaster, or possibly breeze block, with remnants of old and pitted paint or possibly plaster clinging to it.

After the minimum of research on the Interwebs, I wandered off to the Dulux trade centre in town (near the vegetable shop), and discussed the options with them. Although there is a 'primer/sealer' product, the nice man reckoned it was unlikely that I'd need anything as drastic as this, and ordinary primer would probably do. We talked about bathroom paint, I picked up a couple of colour swatches and came away feeling almost competent. Then I attacked all the surfaces with a wire brush, and covered myself and the whole room in flecks of old paint and plaster and dust.

Walls and ceiling ready for painting
I filled some of the worst cavities and cracks, and sanded it all down a bit more while ingesting more dust in the process. Are you bored yet? I was, so of course I returned to the Interwebnet and played with an online app from Dulux that lets you pretend to paint a virtual room with any of their paint colours. To start with I thought I'd like an icy blue-green colour, or a purply blue to blend with the touches of blue in the room, but I couldn't find anything quite right. So now I'm thinking more of a statement in a contrasting colour: Mexican Mosaic 2, Auburn Falls 2 or Flame Frenzy 4. Tester pots are on their way. And you can take a photo of something using their colour template and upload the photo to the website and it will tell you the closest colour in their range. Modern technology, it's amazing.

Next day was sanding and then cleaning up, then a coat of primer, which promptly revealed how inadequate my wall preparation had been. One wall presented bubbles under the newly applied primer, which has meant a morning of scraping and working out whether to ignore it or do something about it, and a decision to look into the possibilities of paint stripper before going any further. This job looks set to run and run.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Do It Yourself

Patio without the weeds
The weeds have been vanquished (for the time being), and now the kitchen ceiling is white and (almost) immaculate. Over a period of about three days (i.e. an inordinate amount of time for any decent worker) I have prepared and painted the kitchen ceiling, missing only one small and almost invisible patch. This is a shockingly small and insignificant task for any able-bodied individual, yet I am as proud of it as if I had completed the single handed restoration of a listed building.

In the protracted tea breaks, lunch breaks and any other breaks between my puny decorating efforts, I have continued to monitor job vacancies, and applied for another post. At last my unceasing barrage of applications has been rewarded, and I have been offered an interview for a job that I applied for more than two weeks ago. In fact, there are two jobs with the same employer, one unadvertised, doubling the chances of selection.

Flushed with this double success - kitchen ceiling and interview - I took the irretrievable step of starting the rehabilitation of the shower room, with its sagging and mouldy wallpaper. Who puts wallpaper on the ceiling a foot above a shower cubicle? Anyway, it isn't there any more, but some of the walls aren't in a very good state, and it will certainly be a more challenging operation than cleaning and painting an essentially sound kitchen ceiling.

Kitchen ceiling before and after