Monday, 30 September 2013

As Tory As ...

I am waiting for the 132 bus loaded down with really good cooking apples and a huge marrow, courtesy of the Salvation Army Harvest Festival, where everything does, indeed, seem to have been safely gathered in. 

George was in a foul mood on account of a letter he has received from Gloucestershire County Council pointing out to him that he must pay the maximum for his adult social care because... Well I'm not sure why, but it boils down to George not cooperating with the assessment of his liability. I tell George he can stay on his high Zimmer Frame and be invoiced every month ( which he won't pay) or he can eat humble pie and play nice. 

Which made him madder, from which he obtained some relief. 

George insists he isn't getting any care, and I believe him. That doesn't mean that he won't be invoiced for it, however. They won't play nice either.

Interesting ... I learn from reading from George's summons to be reasonable, that  Gloucestershire has 'partnered with' '' to provide services for George and his ilk. I guess 'carers'' weren't awarded the contract! Laugh, I nearly wet myself. 

My rightward-leaning friends might think me sloppily opposed to such a brash upfrontedness on the 'paymefirstlovemelater' front. But No! Far better to know that your care provider's first priority is to ensure that  they get paid for doing it,  than labour under the illusion that anyone gives a shit. 

Clever people, like me, made sure that we got to this stage of our lives without assets. As 'The Anti- Social Revolution ' is happening all around us, I dare say the Treasury is on to us, and it will soon be mandatory to give nothing away, ever. I bet the Technology is already available... 

You've spotted my darkest secret haven't you? When it comes to hanging on to what's mine, I'm as Tory as the rest of you!


The 132 Bus

Thursday, 26 September 2013

A Story Goes With It

There was this tipster see. And I think his name was Harry The Horse, or it might have been Spanish John, or perhaps, Nicely-Nicely Jones ... Well, anyway, were you so inclined, you could slip this character a couple  of bucks for which he would, in return, recommend for you the name of a horse on which you might then bet your life's savings and be certain to kiss them goodbye.  

Naturally, you would only do this once, having only one set of life's savings, except that you would be drawn back again and again because,  as Damon Runyon (our author and creator the unsavoury crew named above) would have it, ' a story goes with it'. And what a story! One of such pathos and persuasion that it seemed the horse could not lose, and to fail to place a bet on it was a very foolish act indeed. You may read these stories for yourself. I recommend them.

Horses, however, have never been my thing, though I did once win £35 on a mare, 'Chasing The Bride' on my 35th Wedding Anniversary. She hauled up from last place in the final furlong to the astonishment of all, especially me. No, horses have never been my thing, I'm more into cake.

I love baking cakes, but because they sit on my waist and refuse to budge, I do not do so as often as I would wish. But when I do - they are spectacular. I specialise in cakes with names. Proper names with Capital Letters and if you eat cake with me, whether you wish it or no, you will learn the cake's name and history.

I have another, what might safely be called 'conceit' in that if I'm making dessert for American friends, I leave Betty Crocker on the shelf and get stuck into a Victoria Sandwich, a Sally Lunn or an Eton Mess. If I have no story on hand, I will make one up. The one I am about to tell you, is, however, true.

My uncle Bill was the last Banbury Pitt. He died having sired only daughters, so it being the way of things in those days, the title 'Banbury Pitt' died with him. I'm sad, because this bit of family history is likely to vanish, unless my daughters, on reading this, will think it worth the retelling. Uncle Bill was, as was every William Pitt before him ( we speak of artisan bakers here, not Prime Ministers, by the way) named after a pastry. 

Once upon a time (I swear) a family of Romany Gypsies, by the name of Pitti, landed up in the town of Banbury, in Oxfordshire, on route to God knows where, but let's say, Gloucester, where they sold the recipe for a sweet and curranty delight which is today known as a Banbury Cake. The Pittis became Pitts and settled down in Tredworth, In Gloucester. Where they continued to ply their trade as bakers, until bankrupted during a smallpox epidemic in the mid nineteenth century. That much at least is true. The Pitt Baker Ancestor hung himself in his shop, I have read the report in the Gloucester Citizen. I don't usually tell the bit about the suicide, because, I don't know what you think, but I reckon it rather dampens the spirits and makes cake- eating seem a little inappropriate, somehow. I include it here, for the record.

That's the Americans sorted. My English friends and cake aficionados will be treated to the mighty Williamsburg Orange Cake, the delicate Lady Baltimore Cake, fruity Johnny Appleseed cake, or, my personal favourite, the grand Waldorf Astoria Red Cake. 

I paid two dollars for the recipe for the Waldorf Astoria Red Cake back in 1971. I was a student teacher at the Elementary School on the US Army Base at Menwith Hill in Yorkshire. This is, I admit, a very long way from the prestigious and eponymous New York hotel, but that, I think. serves to make this cake story even more interesting. 

My 'Master Teacher' Ann Bamburger, told me the history of the cake: I have googled it and found it to be true. Her aunt, who could obviously afford to do so, took tea at The Waldorf Astoria, where she sampled The Cake. She was so impressed, that she sent a note down to the kitchens complimenting the chef, and requesting the recipe, which duly arrived with a bill  for $200.  Ann's aunt paid up, and  subsequently sold the recipe on, for a dollar or two, to anyone who wanted it, giving the proceeds to charity.

(Ann was a respectable and serious-minded woman, who would not have made the cake-eating aunt up. She is, I believe, the real source of the Legend of the Red Cake!) 

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Taking Tea With Death

I am listening to Garrison Keiller's, ' Writer's Almanac', a daily podcast that is a small delight, which  I recommend to you. From today's programme, I learn that it's F Scott Fitzgerald's birthday. Or would be, if he weren't dead. I think about being dead sometimes. I allow the delicious abstraction of non-existence to grapple with distaste at the prospect. I find non-striving rather an attractive idea, but can't stand the thought of not being able to interfere in other people's lives any more. 

Heaven might be interesting, if it turns up as advertised, but I rather fancy a spell in an ante-room so that I can listen-in on what people are saying about me in my absence. I'm sure the technology is possible for a spell of other-worldly eavesdropping. I am thinking there is a huge entrepreneurial opportunity for dragging tapping tables and ouija boards into the twenty-first century. The big problem with these communication systems from the viewpoint of the deceased, is the expectation that they, the deceased, should want to speak to the seekers after post-life enlightenment. No. I, as a prospective post-lifer, am far more interested in hearing what the living have to say about me.

I admit it, I am indecently egotistical. 

I remember an episode of 'Friends' when news of Ross' death was posted by Chandlar as a joke, and Ross, as egotistical as me, organised a wake just to see who turned up. He hid in the bathroom to hear what the mourners said about him. Brilliant! He lost the girl, of course, because he always did. 

I am not about to go to that extreme... . 

I enjoy my life far more than I have a right to expect: I believe my occasional death-conscious moments are life-enhancing. I am not against doing the mundane and ordinary stuff that keeps body, soul and society together,  not at all - but I do encourage you all to remember, once in a while, to duck beneath the radar, take your shoes off and run barefoot in the grass... Just because you can. While you can. 


Face down death over tea and cake and plan your exit event so that those you love aren't left puzzling over you whether you wanted Bach or The Beatles... 

This Saturday 28th September. to book ... 

I'll be there. In the flesh. 

Monday, 16 September 2013

Must Try Harder!

I met Dave two years ago, when I first started volunteering for the Salvation Army Lunch Programme. 

Dave is a success story, he turned his life around, and now volunteers alongside me. Today. He was pretty upset. His Jobseekers Allowance has been stopped because it's been decided that he isn't trying hard enough to find work.

He's done everything asked of him. He's attending a computer course to learn how to fill in the Application Forms, which is just as it should be, but he's stuck, because he can't access the email account he was given, and he hasn't the literacy skills necessary to fill the forms in. 

You'd have thought someone would have taken these two things into account before leaving him penniless. Wouldn't you? To compound the problem, Dave has coeliac's disease, and the kind of food you can scrounge when you have no money to buy any, is going to make him sick.

Then there's the anxiety. He's off his head with worry. 

Think of it - insufficient literacy skills to apply for a job. Poisoned by foods his body can't tolerate, driven into depression by a system that has taken no account of his personal circumstances ... 
What chance of Dave getting a job with these burdens to carry? 

Who, I wonder, 'Isn't trying hard enough?' 

I tell you, I'm getting pretty mad. I hope that this makes you uncomfortable too. It's not enough though. On Wednesday I'm taking down Dave's story, gathering the evidence on his behalf, and arranging to take  him to see his MP. I think I might ask a journalist to come with us. You never know.

Using hunger and anxiety as 'nudges' to try to make the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society conform to standards they can't meet, is inhumane. Those in power need to see how the policies they pursue impact on the lives of good people like Dave. I still have sufficient faith in our democracy to think it might make a difference. 

Saturday, 14 September 2013

C'est La Vie

It's been one of those days. 

I ignored my own advice and started out with a 'To Do List':

1. Reconnect the printer to the network, so that I can print from my bed.
2. Bake Johnny Appleseed cakes for the church stall at Newent Onion Fair.
3. Attach new pull chord to the light fixture In the toilet.

I knew Number One would be trouble. I know enough about tasks like these to get started, but insufficient to complete them. I know this, so why I persevere is a testimony to my stupidity. The printer regularly goes offline, for no discernible reason, and I see it as a challenge. Surely THIS time, all I have to do is go through the procedure as described in the Help Pages? No. It's still offline, and in the process of getting this far, I have buggered up the Firewall Settings on my laptop and shortened my life. 

Making the cake should have been ... A breeze. I planned to bake whilst waiting for the help elves at Kodak to materialise ( they didn't ): to make good use of the interminable download/upload dance of futility this exercise usually demands. 

I have no kitchen. This is no barrier to my culinary wizardry because a perfectly adequate temporary kitchen is set up in the back bedroom, and all ingredients were lined up and ready to go. No cake tins? No problem. I knew just where I had put them, so all I needed to do, was open the shed door, "et Voila!" 

No key, and no-one else to blame. My late-night foray into the shed for Worcestershire sauce had been the last key-related incident  of the day before. Consequently, the downtime on the printer problem was spent looking for the key to the shed so that I could find the cake pans to make the cakes that I needed to deliver to the cake stall by 2 pm. I searched every inch of the house, I even looked in the refrigerator. No luck.

Ray found it within five minutes of returning home, some hours later, in my jacket pocket. I'll say no more.

I am tucking into the Johnny Appleseed cake, that was too late for the cake stall, but has found a good home right here instead. It's not all bad. 

And now I'm off to swear at a light fitting with screwdriver in one hand, a length of chord in the other, wondering which foot I'm going to use to dismantle the unit. Before it gets dark.

Talk to you later! 

I BLOODY WELL DID IT! The toilet now has a light. Though to be fair. I'd never have succeeded if Ray hadn't held a torch for forty minutes. There was swearing, and as you can see, there still is. 

Friday, 13 September 2013

Hiding Behind The Sofa

Dr. Who, my all-time most favourite television series, is half-a-century old this year. The BBC, which must be thanking it's lucky stars that it never starred Jimmy Saville, or clashed with The Queen's Diamond Jubilee, is throwing a chunk of my licence money into a huge celebration of this illustrious anniversary, and I am thrilled! I tell you, I would pay my tv licence fee for the Doctor alone, and think it cheap at the price. 

I retreated behind the sofa, with my brother Adrian, in 1963, when the TARDIS first lurched into view carrying the Doctor and his granddaughter, Susan, and I have remained a loyal, entirely uncritical, Dr Who fan ever since.  I didn't much like Jon Pertwee I have to admit, but spent the 'Nappy Years'  turning to Tom Baker for solace. 'He make's mummy's toes curl', I explained to my wondering offspring, only one of whom grew up to be a sci-fi fan. That's OK, I am undiscriminating in my love for them.

The black and white special effects were memorably unconvincing, but served their purpose. They practised me in the art of suspending disbelief, and worked wonders on my imagination. And what about the  monsters?  The early ones were something else. I was especially fond of the Lepidoptera: an invertebrate that WAS a giant mophead.  I don't remember how the Time Lord saw off that particular menace, but I have retained a passing dread of anything ending in 'optera' ever since.  Sorry.

(Aside: Although I vividly remember the Lepidoptera, they have vanished from the public record. I suspect a plot. Or could it be that my imagination, in overdrive, totally invented them? Surely not. Who would invent a monster so utterly unconvincing? Certainly not me!) 

My all-time favourite evil entity, for today, is The Plasmivore. She demonstrated to the Universe that we sweet little old ladies carry something sinister about us, even if it's only a straw. We are not to be entirely trusted. 

When the twenty-something Matt Smith took over the job of saving the universe, I was  sure that my Who-fannery must surely come to an end - but no, I have followed the latest series with the same excitement as the first, though with toes that remain visibly unmoved.

And now Peter Capaldi is taking over the role at Christmas. I approve. I'd go further, I feel the ghost of a twitch in the region of my metatarsals. I think I'd better go for a lie down, but not before checking out  the space behind the sofa. I'm a little bigger than I was in 1963...  .


Oh My Opteras! 

I was wrong about the Lepidopterae! 'All memory is imagined... ' I was told when I embarked on my creative writing adventure. Maybe, maybe not, but it's definitely suspect. Check out the facts, if you really need to know... .

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Telling Their Stories

I was around and about doing my good-deeding this morning, which I mention in passing, as this post is not about me. 

It's about Billy.

We found Billy sitting on a crate outside what used to be The Night Shelter. It closed last February because of all sorts of reasons, one of them being that persons like Billy shouldn't be hanging about on the streets waiting for The Night Shelter to open,  especially now that the rundown Docks area  has reinvented itself as the 'Gloucester Quays Shopping Mall.' 

He's drunk, and maudlin'. He sits here every day, because this was his home..  We gave him coffee and a sausage roll and a chocolate bar, and listen and listen. There's nothing we can do except listen, Tony, Maureen and I. 

It's about Vicky.

Vicki was one of my students. I taught her more than twenty years ago when she was six years old. Seeing her, here, sitting next to Billy,  with two friends, drunk and vulnerable, hits me hard. There are children I taught whose  faces still haunt me. I remember Vicki because I saw a down-trodden, unloved child, whom I couldn't help in any other way than making her days in school as calm and 'normal' as possible. That she ended up drunk and on the streets , marred with the scars of self-mutilation, breaks my heart, but doesn't surprise me. 

It's about Paul.

Paul had a room in The Kimbrose Hotel, a B&B that was filthy, and infested with cockroaches. It's used by Social Services to house people like Paul. After a year in residence, he complained to the Health Department about the cockroaches. The landlord was given five days notice of an inspection and Paul's name. The hotel was fumigated and Paul was evicted with a day's notice. He's angry. We listen and listen, but there's nothing we can do except offer a cup of coffee, a sausage roll, and a chocolate bar. 

I go with others to meet officers in charge of services for the homeless, and listen to statistics. 

I had a bright idea today. 

"What we need to do Tony, is to sod the bloody statistics and tell stories." So that's what we will do, the next time we meet the well-meaning council officers. We'll take out our  notepads and tell stories. 

Monday, 9 September 2013


Since becoming Enlightened, I Practice daily (or when I feel like it - an entirely different timescale) a form of meditation known as 'Contemplative Prayer'.  I stop thinking for twenty minutes, and allow my consciousness to explore the universe without me. I am assured by every guru, and medical science, that my Practice is good for me. It lowers my blood pressure, staves off depression, lengthens my life and keeps me out of mischief. All laudable. 

Some of you may know that I designed a new, if unmarketable - as yet - phenomenon, 'Pre-Atonement' whereby you build up a store of good works to compensate for the inevitable period spent in a foreign land feeding the pigs. (Biblical reference alert: The Prodigal Son). I have had another Cosmic Self-Help Brainwave: Anti-Practice.

Anti-Practice is astoundingly easy to perform, you need no guru, sandalwood or sitar, in fact you need no paraphernalia at. This is what you do. You close your eyes and pick a word, then you let your mind run away with it. 

For example, take the word, 'cake'. Immediately your subconscious will bring up every cake related memory you have. Let it, it's fun. If I turn up in one of those memories, I'm smiling. 

Doesn't have to be cake, of course.


Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Days Of Our Lives

2002 did not begin well.  My darling mother was dying with cancer for the first six months: her final days I recall as an unending battle to stop her smoking. Not because it would do her any good, but because she was on oxygen... . "She'll blow the whole bloody street up!" The  doctor protested, having decided, somehow, that this was my fault. 

I managed to persuade dad to remove the oxygen from the room when matches were being struck and cigarettes smoked. 

I lost my mother to nicotine.  Mum had no lungs left with which to inhale at the end: her craving for the drug robbed us of her - dad tried desperately to help her, but to no avail.  Those distressing scenes would be the most effective anti-smoking propaganda going. I missed her final hours because I couldn't bear to watch any more.

Two months after her funeral I flew to South Africa to take up my assignment at Lower Kroza Junior Secondary School as a Global Teacher. I used to joke that The Great Millenium Extravaganza produced two monuments to foolishness: the Millennium Dome - and my incarnation as a Global Teacher. 

The drive down the N2 from Durban to Umtata, at 15 hours, was longer than the flight fromthe UK.  Skirting the Drakensburgs, it was actually snowing. "Looks just like Cumbria!" I heard from a native of that county.

The Eastern Cape in winter is vast, brown, veldt. These grasslands are dotted with villages growIng out from water sources towards the roads - certainly Lower Kroza was. The main occupations were cattle ranching and cattle rustling, though car-jacking was on the up, back then. 

A year of preparation through LINK International Development, who managed the scheme on behalf of the Millennium Commission, had me well primed.

I was looking forward to a smoke-filled rondaval, an oil lamp for light, and a bucket as a toilet. I would subsist on semp mealies and would make the most of life with a pit latrine. I had taken to heart the medical advice, "Don't sleep with anyone, and keep away from the pets".   I submitted my immune system to every vaccination going, except rabies. (Which with hindsight, was a serious omission).  I had been taught how to teach workshops on, 'English as a Second Language', 'Sexual Health', and, at the behest of The Eastern Cape Education Department, 'The Role Of Women in the New South Africa.' I had been facilitated, inaugurated and orientated.  I was ready.

But not for a five-bedroomed bungalow, complete with satellite TV. comfortable, well furnished rooms and a fully functioning kitchen. Pre-and Mis-conceptions flew out of the locked and barred window of my beautifully appointed bedroom. My African home is more English vicarage, than Tribal  homestead! Indeed. Mrs Nomantobi Mlombile, my host, was the widow of an Archdeacon in the Anglican Church.  He had Archdeaconed: she had built up the Kraal and raised the children there.  She now raises her great-grandchildren.  

The masterly project proposal I had contrived that had won me  a 'Millennium Award' and this placement, envisioned me sitting round the cooking fire and  listening to my hosts telling me their traditional stories, which I would capture for posterity, and retell them to English audiences. Not a chance. I spent my evenings in front of a colour television, wrapped up in a 'wearing blanket' with the kids, watching, 'Days of Our Lives' - the most appalling American Soap ever. (Now THOSE tales are worth telling! Rocking Madonnas, evil twins, babies switched at birth - the lot!)

Towards the end of my stay, I asked Mrs Oriana Ngai, who had taken it upon herself to help me out with all things relevant to Xhosa culture, to PLEASE  tell me some stories. ( I explained my predicament...) "Oh!" she breezed,  "We don't do that any more - you need to talk to those Zulu guys!" I pleaded with her - there must be SOMETHING she could recall! So she racked her brains and came up with a tale of two sisters, one of whom dutifully did everything her father asked of her and married a chief, the other, who sounded a lot like me, came to a sticky end in the jaws of a monster. Umm. So much for the seminar on, 'The Role of Women in the New South Africa.'

I did return to England and visit schools and village halls to tell traditional Xhosa tales - all of which, I b,ush to admit, came from a book I bought in Johannesburg Airport on the way home. 

Funerals were occasions for sharing.  There were five deaths in this small community during the five weeks I was there. Although I didn't attend any interments, I was a guest at a funeral meal, and  I did the traditional funeral  visiting with Mr Landalisa Mximwa, the school's principal.  The bereaved family sits on a mat on the floor of their home, with a blanket around their shoulders as a sign of mourning, and retells the life story of the deceased.  Naturally the proceedings were in Xhosa; my role is to sit still and look solemn - or so I thought.  Until, following a speech of condolance, of which, naturally, I understood not a word, Mr Mximwa looks at me and announces in English,  "And now Mrs Mary will will address you... !" 

"I do not speak your language, I do not understand your culture, but eight weeks ago, my mother died:I know your grief."

Today, I  listen to news of the slaughter in Syria, and in The Democratic Republic of Congo, and I think of the Palestinians walled in, and captive, in their own land, of the Israelis living under continuous threat of annihilation, and of the unfinished and unwinnable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I have nothing to say. 


All I can do is to allow the grief of suffering peoples to touch my heart, and hope that this year, next year, sometime, SOMETHING will change. 

What if, in the never-never land of hope, tribal politics were to be put to one side, just for a day, and the protagonists were look into each other's eyes and say, "I don't understand you, but I know your grief." Would that perhaps, be the beginning of an ending?