Rash words, Jeremy

2 Feb

Two hands, I believe

On Friday I took the car to the garage. It had a slow puncture, or so I believed, which needed to be addressed, and potentially a new tyre fitted. I told the nice mechanics at our usual garage what the problem was, and they took it to the bowels of the building for their diagnostic treatment. In the meantime L2 and I played Poisonous Creatures Top Trumps, which I would recommend heartily.

The mechanics came back to me with startling news. My diagnosis was wrong! The tyre was intact; it was a thinning of the beading around the wheel hub leading to minuscule quantities of air making a bid for freedom whenever we drove on it. Careful application of fresh sealant, no new tyre needed, job done.

Honestly, who would have thought that I, with no car mechanic qualifications or experience to my name, could have got that wrong? Well, probably most people would have assumed it was highly probable that I could be incorrect. Tyre’s deflating; it’s got to be a small hole in the tyre, right? Well, actually, not right. But then I am not and have never claimed to be a car expert. Insane idea. My diagnosis of the car’s issue was based on assumption of what as a layperson I believed to be likely. Doesn’t mean that it’s going to be the case. And that’s why I took the Zafira to the expert.

In 2014 I applied the same principles to my small son’s not-well-ness. His symptoms, to me, appeared remarkably similar to those expected for glandular fever. I Googled it, and voila! Glandular fever fitted the bill. Good old Google, giving us the answers we want since 1998. Crikes, I thought, poor kid, glandular fever’s nasty.

However, because as evidenced by my taking the car to a mechanic, and entrusting electrics to an electrician, and so on, I am a fan of the concept of the expert, and because the small boy had a spectacular temperature that wasn’t shifting, I popped to the out of hours GP at the hospital to have my glandular fever diagnosis confirmed.

But! Who would have thought that the symptoms of pneumonia are the same as glandular fever (to the unpracticed Google reliant amateur diagnostician, at least)? Thank goodness for the professionals, who got it right, treated my son quickly, kindly and correctly, and stopped something nasty becoming something very nasty indeed.

Jeremy Hunt, shame on you. As Health Secretary your duty of care extends to the nation (God help us) – we are meant to look to your advice to know what to do. Advising the population to turn to the Internet for knowledge that takes our doctors decades to learn, practise and perfect, is madness, and dangerous. You have pronounced some idiocy in your term of office, but this is simply demented.

Dieting without doom

26 Jan

Veggie nice
This summer I became uncomfortably – quite literally – aware of an increasing case of weight creep. Not much, just a smattering of pounds (sorry, old money only in this blog) above where I like to be, but it was nearly impossible to pinpoint any dramatic reason for all this. So I realised that I had inadvertently fallen into some rather damaging dietary habits and even my passion for power walking couldn’t neutralise their effect. Slicing cheese for lunch? Oooh go on, just add an additional couple of slices which I’ll just scarf down. The odd crisp or two a day won’t hurt, will it? Odd one or two bags, I mean. And having a cider on a Thursday can’t possibly do any damage. So I’ll go ahead. These innocent examples simply form the tip of the iceberg.

And let’s not even get started on my caffeine and aspartame intake… pint after pint of squash (hydration – that’s definitely a good thing right, despite whatever it is I’ve flavoured it with) on top of pint after pint of coffee and some lovely diet Coke or Coke Zero, that’s the way to keep sharp during long days. The peaks and crashes caused by such dramatically fluctuating sugar levels were a wonder to behold, not such a wonder to experience.

The nudge I needed to tackle my dissatisfaction, which was creeping as inexorably as my weight gain was, arrived in the very welcome form of my wonderful colleague Katie and her nutrition course. She had devised a three day detox as part of the programme and needed victims, oh did I say victims, I meant volunteers, an easy mistake to make given that they both begin with ‘v’ (only kidding, Katie!) to trial the programme and give her feedback. This was exactly the trigger I needed to address the increasing lack of respect with which I was treating myself.

In a mere three days my eyes and my tastebuds were opened, and I am genuinely fascinated by how to nourish myself and my family in new ways that make everyone feel good. I realised I hadn’t tried a truly new meal for months, probably for years. I remembered that eggs are brilliant. I found new grains, and grain substitutes, to help me cut down my reliance on wheat (specifically, bread and pasta) while still keeping me nicely full and energised. Turns out this was just in time, as L1 now appears to be wheat intolerant – so I would have had to carry out this investigation into alternatives sharpish anyway.

Nuts and seeds are a pleasing crisp substitute, particularly macadamia nuts, with their smooth milky round crunchiness. Infusing turmeric root, ginger root and lemon juice in a pint of boiling water brings the day sharply to life and doesn’t taste like ‘a curry drink’ (copyright: my children, daily). I won’t claim to have given up coffee and have no intention of doing so, but I have quit squash and all forms of fizzy cola and their friends. Chromium genuinely quells sugar cravings. And yes, I feel significantly better for it all. And no, no-one’s really noticed that I cook in coconut oil, pour water with dinner and our pasta is made from spelt, not wheat.

What’s best about all this is that the dietary changes I’ve made have all taken place comfortably within the confines of normal everyday life. Katie’s healthy living ethos is that being kind to yourself includes a healthy dose of indulgence alongside healthy nutrition. It acknowledges that we all deserve treats and these can sit comfortably alongside a plan for good living. I can most definitely be doing with that attitude and I would thoroughly recommend anyone interested in this area finding out more via her perfectly-named website Imperfectly Pure.

Symptoms of my advancing ageĀ 

21 Jan

 Last week I discovered my most traumatic sign of ageing yet: an unruly, freakishly long, grey eyebrow hair. Just the one. It snuck up on me; initially I assumed it was a casualty of my haphazard approach to eyebrow taming, but as the week progressed it made its presence increasingly clear, until even I had to admit that it wasn’t just one normal one not sitting quite right.

I excised it, but it made me realise that my body is starting to make some age-related decisions of its own, whether I like it or not. They suddenly presented themselves to me in precise clarity. 

I have to dye my hair more regularly (I know, the very fact I do dye it at all will come as a shock, I am sure, as I am delusional).

I make odd involuntary noises upon sitting, standing or even breathing after any time spent sedentary, and rub my hands over my face and through my hair regularly, for no particular reason.

I have discovered a sinister intolerance for the cold which is mostly playing itself out in my right middle finger. Somehow all the chill concentrates in that single digit, turning it to the touch several degrees below the temperature of the other nine (or seven, if you are a thumb purist).

I am obsessed with dehumidifiers. I prowl the rooms of the property on the alert for rogue condensation droplets and their slightly further down the line bedfellow, black mould spores. There are two different dehumidifiers in my wardrobe alone, and a bulk pack of eighteen in the utility room, in case of an unexpected global shortage.

And my vocabulary is decimated. I have banned use of the words ‘thing’ and ‘stuff’ at home due to the increased reliance – mainly by me – on these convenient catch-all’s, which in the past led to such paragons of articulate clarity as ‘the stuff is on the thing’ and ‘without the thing we can’t get the stuff’. However since implementing this ban, I can scarcely speak without great stretching pauses as I cast around for the word I actually meant but which has been conveniently in the past replaced by ‘thing’, and expansive gesticulating.

This is just a few – if you spot any more around me, please let me know. I may cry, but knowledge is power.


3 Sep

Until about ten days ago I didn’t think much about a thirty minute bus journey and a ten minute walk to get to a destination. ‘Much’, on reflection, is an exaggeration. I don’t believe I considered it at all.

However over the last ten days I have considered little else, and it isn’t even my journey. It is of course the upcoming commute of L1, who starts ‘bigger school’ tomorrow. 

Rationally, I get it, the journey is nothing. A trip on a school bus with many people she knows, then a stroll through residential streets into the school gates. She is sanguine about it, just as she has been sanguine about this whole process to date. I have poured all my longing for everything to be ok, no, to be more than ok, to be great for her, at secondary school, and the worries this inevitably provokes, onto this 40-minute time period as by concentrating it so directly I don’t have space to consider all the manifold other aspects of secondary education that I should doubtless be more concerned about.

Never has a bus trip and a stroll felt more filled with peril.

Now, today, like everyone else who has cast even half an eye over the news, I have been confronted by someone else’s journey, and its terrible consequences, that have put all my small worries into perspective.

The knowledge of how blessed I am that I have my daughter to worry over has rarely felt more present. The fear I feel about the journey she is about to take – I imagine it – in fact, I cannot imagine it – magnified and expanded as these desperate families, thousands of them, contemplate their potentially fatal travel to what they perceive and pray to be a better life for their beloved children, the centre of their worlds. How dark and untenable must the lives they are leading be, if their only viable alternative is to flee in boats piloted by profiteers with less than zero regard for preserving human life, when the strong and distinct possibility of death is a consequence of that journey as likely as the possibility of a safe passage. 

What a thing to contemplate, as awful as Sophie’s Choice – a mother deciding which child to save – where the equally unbearable choice is ‘stay and suffer or leave and possibly die’. 

As my children get older, I understand increasingly that quite a lot of parenting is quelling your own fear of something horrible happening in order to do what you believe and know to be right, to be the best option for your children. When I think of the desperate refugees in these terms, it brings their plight sharply into focus. How could I bear making that choice? Yet daily these poor people do that and risk losing the centre of their worlds.

Safe in my world where right now my biggest concern is successful completion of an adventure by public transport, I feel too small and helpless to affect the cause of the scenes on all front pages today. Yet I am compelled nonetheless to add my voice to the chorus now driving for decisive action and concrete decisions. I hope our Government listens and finds the wisdom for discernible action not just excuses and deflecting responsibility.


Chilled to the bone – a book review of The Bones of You by Debbie Howells

5 Aug
IMG_1998Debbie Howells’ The Bones of You grabbed me from the very start. Howells tells the story of an apparently normal, borderline idyllic, English village where residents are wealthy commuters or work in agricultural or traditional ‘country’ pursuits, which is devastated by the murder of eighteen year old Rosie.
Most of the book is told from gardener, horse lover and mother of one of Rosie’s friends, Kate’s perspective, as she finds herself pulled deeper and deeper into the mystery of what happened to Rosie.
Through Kate we feel grief for Rosie’s death, as she attempts to comfort her own eighteen year old, Grace, and navigate her through the terrible task of coming to terms with what has befallen her friend; we feel empathy for Jo and Neale, Rosie’s parents, as through Kate’s eyes Howells draws a picture of devastation and disbelief; and we become intrigued as Kate is, almost against her and our own will, as she finds she cannot leave the crime alone.
Kate is a well-drawn picture of a woman who suddenly finds herself without a key focus of her life, as her daughter Grace leaves for university. It feels like her at times almost obsessive fascination with the Rosie case and Rosie’s family, particularly her mother, Jo, happens because she is trying to find a niche, to be needed as her daughter needed her before she struck out for her independence at University. This clever positioning makes Kate far more than a channel for the storytelling, and gives her character some real complexity and a very human face.
On one level The Bones of You is a straightforward whodunnit; but it has other levels much more complex than that, which is what made it such a compelling read. Of course I wanted to find out who murdered Rosie, but through clever use of flashbacks told in the dying Rosie’s voice, as she watches her life play back before her eyes, I ended up wanting to find out because I liked her as a character, and felt deep sadness for this young girl, forced to become mature way beyond her age, who had apparently seen her own tragic fate. Through the use of Rosie’s narrative voice, filling in gaps in our understanding and her back story, the novel also became a well-written exploration of abuse, its perpetuation and ongoing impact, and the different forms abuse can take. All told as a narrative, without authorial explanation, a clever technique for filling in the background and, since we uncover information as our lead characters Kate and Rosie do, providing various characters with motivation for murder, so names on the list of suspects ebb and flow, keeping me guessing almost to the end.
While I did guess ‘whodunnit’, I’m left with a sneaky suspicion this was through luck not detective insight!
With summer holidays upon us, this would be the perfect book to sling in your luggage – but don’t make it the only one you take. If it fascinates you anywhere near as much as it fascinated me, you’ll have read it in 48 hours!

Things I have learnt from my daughter

19 Jul

This week coming is L1’s final week at primary school. I know, she only started a week last Wednesday so I don’t quite know how we have come to this, but there we go.

In the last week she has embraced two nights of her Year 6 production, given it large at her leaver’s party and received her SATS results. This week of heightened and contradictory emotions comes on top of a year where she has had to process and recover from her first ‘proper’ disappointments. And she has approached each of these events with calm equanimity, unlike me, looming on the sidelines ready to pick up after a crisis that so far has not yet come, as she takes these milestone events in her stride.

She is able to process and explain her emotions, and she does cry and get angry, but she explains why. She is not afraid to say she doesn’t want to leave, and that she will miss her wonderful classmates terribly. But she is also able to accept that sitting alongside that is anticipation for the next step of her education and her life; she has no hang ups about the passing of time. She really does embrace the way things are, even if they are not as she expected, and as a result, she enjoys it. 

Life is positive for her despite it holding trepidation, uncertainty and a bed of roses where she has occasionally discovered thorns. 
Whatever Kool Aid she is drinking, I think I would like some of it please. Lots that I can learn from here.

A book review: Villa America – well worth coming to stay

25 May

Villa America front cover

Mumsnet gave me the chance to review Villa America by Liza Klaussmann. I will never turn down a book, ever; but having never read any Liza Klaussmann before (what a mistake!) I didn’t know what I would get from Villa America. What I got was a wonderful surprise. The story of Sara and Gerald Murphy, glamorous 1920 society lynchpins and, as such, hosts to some of the most recognisable names of that era, brought me straight into their world and pinned me there, rapt, unable to put the novel down.

All main characters bar one (pilot Owen Chambers) in the novel are real people. In the case of people like F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, they are people who I have studied before in the context of the work they produced. It is fascinating therefore to read what might have fleshed out those factual bones; Klaussmann has clearly done a huge amount of research, and therefore the way she writes to fill in the gaps feels perfectly believable, no character’s personification jarring with what we know about them from history, and the dialogue, thoughts and motivations as written by Klaussmann, perfectly believable.

Villa America is a multi-faceted, tremendously colourful tale. We learn about the central characters, Sara and Gerald Murphy, from their earliest lives. Both have characters shaped by unhappy and dysfunctional childhoods; they are childhood friends, not sweethearts, who are reunited after several years and recognise within each other kindred spirits, a shock of realisation that turns into love. They are united in their determination to give each other, and their children, the upbringing that neither of them had. The letters between the two when they first realise that they are destined to be together, and those talking about their first child, Honoria, are realistic and touching.

Their relationship throughout the book and their individual personalities, thoughts and feelings are written sensitively and with great care; as a result, I was able to believe that Gerald could fall passionately in love with someone else while remaining absolutely committed to his marriage and the idyll that he and Sara had created as a result of it. A writer less skilled than Klaussmann would not be able to carry this off, and the careful writing of Sara and Gerald’s relationship is one of the continuously strong and enjoyable threads within the novel.

The reader knows from the very start that the paradise described throughout most of the novel is only temporary. This skillful techique colours reading of the apparently carefree and hedonistic lifestyle at Villa America – as the reader, you know that it is not going to last, unlike the main characters, who for a significant proportion of the novel believe that it will, and viewing it from this position of knowledge gives the story right from the beginning a poignancy that it would not otherwise have. It prevents the characters’ most hedonistic and selfish actions rendering them dislikable, as the reader knows that ‘paradise will be lost’ right from the start. Read from this position of full knowledge, scenes featuring the children and Gerald and Sara’s careful construction of the perfect world for them – even down to Sara’s absolute terror of germs, and the precautions she takes to combat them, which are naive and, ultimately, tragic – are particularly moving. The inexorable movement towards the collapse of the status quo which they have all, to a greater or lesser extent, taken for granted, which we know cannot last, since history tells us so, is also foreshadowed by the excellent writing of Owen Chambers’ experience as a pilot in the First World War, and the vivid description of a fellow aviator’s fiery death. Klaussmann doesn’t shy away from the truth of the 1920s and the horrific events of the war which ushered it in; she writes Chambers’ war experience as believably as the rest of it, and we share in and believe Owen Chambers’ defining life experiences just as we share in and believe the quieter, more personal traumas that have defined the Murphys.

I wasn’t certain how a novel featuring through it a progression of people as well-known as Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway would work without sounding at least unbelievable and at worst unbelievable and pretentious. We know the Murphys were ‘in real life’ hosts to these people; their relationships are written aside from the work for which they are renowned, and as a result, we believe in the day-to-day lives that Klaussmann writes for them. Zelda Fitzgerald’s depression, her reckless acts as a result of it, and the catastrophic effect of alcohol on her relationship with her husband Scott, but their inability to leave their hedonistic and damaging lifestyle behind were particularly memorable for me.

Villa America pulls the reader into the 1920s and the Murphys’ lives, and doesn’t let you go. When I put the book down, I continued to think about it; finishing it feels like a loss somehow. I would thoroughly recommend it. A proper must-read.


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