No point telling me it’s not spring yet. Not when those crocuses of hope are pushing up all over the place.
It feels like spring outside and it looks like it too. I went out to the wheelie bin and got rain and sunshine at the same time, which pretty much clinched the diagnosis.
The snowdrops have been. So too have aconites and iris reticulata.
Someone’s camellia is busy doing its thing, though its neighbour is less lush.
Looks like my cotoneaster is playing dead again, and one of hydrangeas has copped it. A couple of salvias were meant to disguise a missing chunk of the pot, but that didn’t quite work out.
On the plus side, I now know what slugs do all winter.
As a young child, I thought gardens were a place of wonder, and almost infinite in size. Snails fascinated me. So did the loofah plants that grew alongside the house in Alexandria. Snapdragons were called gueule de loup, made for opening and shutting like a wolf’s mouth. The gardener swept the path with a palm leaf, and watered when the weather was especially dry, though, as every Alexandrian will tell you, the weather is absolutely perfect in Alex.
As an adult, I’m a fairly lazy gardener and anyway the patio isn’t infinitely large. At the moment it’s not so much a riot of colour as someplace to go to between Zoom meetings. But you’ve got to stop and smell the roses, as they say.
The roses aren’t out yet, the honeysuckle is barely visible, and I’ve no idea who ‘they’ are, but even so I did that smelling thing today. And yes, I’ve now figured out what the neighbour’s cat has been doing all winter.
How is your garden doing this month? Is it bursting into life, or haven’t you got around to checking?
“An author should always make an effort to look good,” a novelist once told me. Her name was Sally and she was a tutor on a writing course. I’ve forgotten her surname as well as everything else she said, but I do remember her advice to put on your best face, even just for a radio interview.
With this in mind, I slipped into the habit of putting on lipstick even if I was only popping down to the cash machine. My three boys hooted with laughter because it was the kind of thing their grandmother did. Not their mother.
Of course, it’s impossible to look your best all the time. On the school run, mascara inevitably takes second place to lost gym kit, and, in my other life as a GP, I was often bedraggled from visiting patient after patient in the rain.
To be fair, I reckon few people expect their doctor to step out of the pages of a fashion mag. Tidy and clean are usually enough. The occasional patient, however, has a keen eye. “Bed 3 wants to see you,” said the nurse on the ward.
‘Bed 3’ – who happened to be from Tunbridge Wells – didn’t just tell me about her cystitis symptoms. She also pointed out that the hem of my dress was uneven.
I prescribed some treatment, and, when I next checked in on her, she said she was better. Then she asked when I was going to fix that dress.
I didn’t exactly follow author Sally’s advice for my first ever radio interview. It was at the end of a busy week and it was down the line so, come 6pm, I was lying in bed on the phone to the presenter. I took the precaution of using an extra pillow, though. It’s best not to sound completely dead even if you look it.
The following interview was in the radio studio. Sally what’s-her-name would have been so proud to see me arrive with full makeup and shiny hair. The listeners might not be able to see me, but the team at the station would.
As it turned out, the presenter and I never met. I was taken to sit on my own in a separate little studio.
What about the producer? Well, his guide dog thought I looked OK.
Without serious preparation, a book club meeting is nothing. Which explains why, for the previous half hour, I had been fashioning little flags out of sticky labels and toothpicks to poke into various cheeses. Of course, an elaborate cheeseboard was not the only fare that evening. There was plenty of wine as well. This particular club, like so many other suburban book gatherings, could be described as a drinking club with a reading problem.
The venue may be a local pub, a bookshop, someone’s front room, or, especially this year, a room on Zoom. While the surroundings may vary, I have discovered some universal truths about book clubs.
#1 Like books themselves, book clubs come in all shapes, sizes, and genres. Some are highbrow, others less so. Before setting off with a tome tucked under your arm, it’s as well to know which sort you’re heading for. Get it wrong, and it’s like turning up at a funeral dressed for a tarts ‘n vicars party.
#2 There’s always a troublemaker, and the reason for the trouble is ostensibly to do with the book. The end is too rushed or too vague, there are too many foreign words or too little sex, and since when did dove get to be the past tense of dive?
“Since about 1855, that’s when,” a smart-arse will pipe up, citing the OED or an obscure poem by Longfellow.
#3 Someone will try to restore the peace. It’s either an amateur referee, a retired librarian with world-class shushing skills, or the home-owner who fears waking the kids.
#4 That’s why it’s a relief to move on to the choice for next meeting, though a consensus may be elusive. The chosen book is most often a novel, but could it be a biography for a change? The next book has to be well-thought of, or else controversial. Must triggers be avoided? Discuss. And they do.
Recent or topical is good, as long as the book is affordable. If not, some will only study the free sample on Amazon.
The book can’t be too long, because some of us work, you know. Here someone may bring up past choices. “Remember the time we chose English Passengers? I couldn’t be doing with nearly 500 pages.”
“Why not? English Passengers was hilarious.” Which may have been true, in parts. But then this came from the same person who thought of Titanic as a rom-com.
#5 Sometimes the club invites an author as guest speaker. Authors are only too glad to talk about their book and quaff wine, until such time as they are allowed to leave with the gift of a potted plant and the remains of the Roquefort. Just don’t say, “I’ve written a novel. Could you have a look at my manuscript?”
#6 Virtual meetings, being easier to attend and free of location restraints, often increase the number of participants, but Zoom and the like can decrease interaction. That doesn’t necessarily make the club run more harmoniously, though. See #2 above.
#7 It’s easy to dip into a book club and there’s no need to commit to every meeting, especially online. Just Google and you’re bound to find clubs for every possible genre, whether you enjoy sci-fi, feminist literature, translated books, historical fiction, or zombie apocalypse novels. Since the advent of Covid-19, escapism is the order of the day.
Do you go to a book club? I’d love to hear about yours, so please let me know its highs and its lows.
Next week, you can join award-winning authorJane Davisfor a lockdown book club meeting via Zoom. On 12 Dec at 6.00pm, she’ll be answering questions about her latest release, At the Stroke of Nine O’Clock, a gripping novel set in the 1950s. The event is free but you need to register. Zoom meeting ID: 848 7601 7328 https://buff.ly/3miipHf
Bet you’d like to hang onto the feelgood vibes of a summer holiday, especially if you didn’t have one this year.
Now this isn’t going to be a dumb piece about keeping your fresh-from-the-beach locks by spritzing on some expensive concoction. Oh, no. Not when you can get the same effect far more cheaply.
First off, wear sunglasses as long as you can. Or maybe, to avoid stumbling about, just wear your ordinary glasses while tilting your head and admiring your surroundings as if seeing it all for the first time.
There’s nothing like holiday togs to bring back memories. Don’t you have an I ♥ SANTORINI T-shirt hiding somewhere?
A straw hat will complete the look, though admittedly the rain won’t do it much good.
Keep shaving your legs and painting your toenails. Guys, stop shaving. It doesn’t matter what you do with your toenails because you’re probably wearing socks with your sandals.
You may not be lounging by the pool, but you could still make time to read novels rather than newspapers and the daily misery of reality.
Ditto, watching the TV news can only worsen the feeling of impending doom. Isn’t Hawaii 5-0 on repeat somewhere?
Go for a walk to boost your endorphins and savour the last rays of sunshine. If you’ve already been on a walk, go for another one. It’s even more like a holiday if one of your flip-flops breaks while you’re out.
There’s nothing like a day out to give you a holiday buzz. You’ll need to plan well ahead to visit somewhere special like Kentish Town City Farm, but it’s well worth the effort.
If refreshments are on offer, why not get a cream tea or an ice cream? Where you can, drink sangria, Pimms, or anything with a paper parasol in it. You can always pop it into a hot chocolate later.
Dig out old photos and immerse yourself in happy memories. I’ve recently been writing about growing up in Egypt, and studying ancient albums full of grainy pictures from the beach have given me a lot of fun.
Finally, here’s the crucial thing for keeping autumn at bay: don’t mention Christmas. Sorry. Just did.
I’m off to put some overpriced brine on my hair. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear from you. Do you see off summer happily, or try to hang on as long as possible? And what tunes would you put on your summer playlist?
Never mind how newspapers and magazines use the word. In line with the real meaning of staycation (staying at home and making day trips), we set out with a full tank and a vague sense that we might end up in North Norfolk. I’m married to a Norfolk boy, and I hasten to add that I am not his sister.
“Think bike,” I said as we left home. I was only repeating what I’d read on a road safety sign but, with my OH, it triggers dreams of his beloved Bonneville and Suzuki V-twin, along with reminiscences of his speedway days. I woke him from his reverie before we hit a hapless pedestrian.
How I’d missed the sights and sounds of rural Britain during lockdown – and the smells. First stop Lakenheath where USAF fighter jets were about to take off. We’re merely opportunistic spotters, but lined up against the chain link fence were all kinds of spotters and their cars, plus a mobile snack bar to sustain life during a long wait.
The air, heavy with the scent of aviation fuel, throbs when the F-15s come to life. Their roar is unlike anything outside Cape Canaveral and I defy anyone not to feel stirred as the planes gather speed.
I tried to capture the excitement with my Huawei which, I’m told, beams every image direct to China. Sorry to disappoint you, Beijing, but all I got was a high-res view of galvanised metal fencing.
To save you the trouble of going all the way to Lakenheath, this video gives you an idea, though it’s only a tiny sample of the experience. You’ll need to imagine standing a few hundred yards away with your fingers rammed in your ears.
By way of a complete contrast, the second stop of the day was a Norfolk village where ducks outnumber humans and reading seems popular, if the phone box is anything to go by.
I won’t reveal the name of the village, but this little clipmight recreate the duck pond for you without using any petrol.
On to Burnham Market, a postcard-perfect town where Hunter wellies are de rigueur, which made sense as it was raining by then. Hungry by then, we stopped at Tilly’s café for lunch. With no free tables left inside, we hunkered down beneath a shrubby honeysuckle.
I can never go to Norfolk in the summer without buying samphire. It grows around tidal creeks and estuaries, but I usually get mine at a stall by the side of the road, where you can pick up a small bag of the stuff in return for a few coins left in a well rusted honesty box. The first bunch I bought this week turned out to still have its roots attached, which unfortunately means that picking it sacrificed the whole plant. The other bunch I bought came in a plastic bag full of water. Although you can sometimes buy samphire in supermarkets, freshly picked bunches taste much better and you also get the experience of salt water sloshing in your Converses as you drive home.
In the spirit of sharing my day out, here’s a recipe for hot samphire and potato salad from the Easy Cheesy Vegetarian. It even works without the potatoes.
We then stopped at one or two of our favourite beaches for a paddle in the sea. The Med it ain’t, but it’s the epitome of a British summer. This is a three-wheeler we saw in Cromer. Looked like a Morgan, but it’s more probably a kit car enjoying an outing.
We headed home for samphire and salmon after a happy day.
Bonjour, tout le monde. Avec le lockdown, c’est no doubt un très long time since vos last holibobs. But, maintenant que easyJet et other dirt-cheap avions are restarting, vous might be thinking of un nifty getaway.
Problème: vous ne parlez pas any foreign languages, not even français qui est spoken par our nearest neighbours (je ne compte pas Scotland et Wales).
Solution: learnez le Franglais! Also, shoutez beaucoup.
Le Franglais est une langue inventée par Miles Kington, writer extraordinaire et columnist pour Punch magazine pour many years. Très sadly, Punch magazine est now deceased, et Monsieur Kington also, mais son useful invention lives on. En mon opinion, il est due un revival.
Therefore cette week dans mon blog, ici les easy steps pour master le Franglais.
Premier, important de know what vous voulez from votre holiday. Voici quelques raisons pour travel:
Obtenir un suntan.
Recharger les batteries
Impresser vos followers sur Instagram.
Acheter un tawdry souvenir or deux.
Avoir quelque chose à parler chez le hairdresser later.
Drink beaucoup de booze qui est cheap comme les frites.
Aller sur le pull.
Faire un late-night tattoo ill-advised. Marquez mes mots, après 8 pints de bière foreign, tous les tattoos sont ill-advised.
C’est tout, really. Oh, merde. Je forget soak up la culture!
Les preparations pour le voyage sont très importants surtout après le long lockdown. Dustez off votre passeport et loadez le Kindle. Achetez un nouveau bikini et loads de sunscreen – ne forgettez pas un soap de travel pour les undies – et paquez tout ça dans une belle suitcase qui va promptly go missing à l’aéroport.
Je sais. Loads à faire. Aussi pour parler avec les natives il faut plenty de practice. Apprendre une language, c’est pas just reading un livre de phrase. Je suis right, ou je suis right? Il faut écouter et parler. Prochaine week, therefore, je launch le app.
In one morning, no less than three emails hit my inbox asking me to consider my Zoom wardrobe. Covid-19 has made it tough for the fashion industry to shift SS2020 collections but, all the same, I don’t need to spend money on smart new outfits for working from home.
Not being from the selfie generation, however, I need some help in getting camera-ready. Jewellers insist earrings make the best video conference statement, and incidentally there’s a sale now on and delivery is free (what are the odds?).
Beauty brands, on the other hand, claim that makeup is THE priority now. It’s not quite how I think of the pandemic, but I’ll gladly agree that a bright red nose isn’t a good look on a work video. Even if it’s an incipient boil, most people will assume it’s the cooking sherry.
It’s harder to conceal the WFH weight gain. And what about hair growth? Be they dark or white, roots can often by hidden by rearranging the height of the screen. If that’s not enough, a hat can work, like a colleague of mine who wears a beret to magnificent effect. Beanie hats, on the other hand, can engender mistrust. Can’t imagine why.
Obviously only the upper half needs to be groomed for a Zoom rendez-vous. Spare a thought, though, for those wearing only their worst knickers, or none, when they unexpectedly jump up during a call to deal with a wailing child.
With image definition almost as good as a CT scan, everything is under scrutiny, piles of ironing and all. Bookshelves as backdrops have emerged as the biggest status symbol for the Zoom era.
But which books should be on show? There has been a huge media fuss about certain titles which, said some, had no place in any right-thinking person’s home.
Well, now you can create a backdrop of virtual bookshelves with your own books on it. A little too contrived, perhaps, so few people go to such lengths. And why bother, when there are so many other background options, many of them courtesy of Zoom.us? The choice, I’m told, is very revealing. That picture of a palm-fringed beach says you’re not trying too hard.
Such photos have the added bonus of making a large cocktail in your hand seem entirely normal.
Though I’m not sure what it says about me (Hampstead type, maybe?), this shot of Hampstead Heath is my preferred background for Zoom calls.
I even used it when trying out the new trend of WFB, though the effect was spoiled when an IKEA pillowcase slipped into view.
Once you have everything in place, there’s still no saying who will join your video meeting as an extra, as when your other half decides you need an impromptu kiss on the top of the head.
I pressed mute so I could tell him to bugger off. Unfortunately, I unmuted myself before he replied, ‘Did you finish all the gin?’
Video conferencing is tiring even if without such interruptions. Some days, I spend more time on remote meetings than real work, and Zoom fatigue is genuine. There’s all that sitting up straight and keeping one’s face in view, whereas, in a normal conversation, the vertebral muscles keep moving and don’t stiffen up.
Still, all meetings end eventually. Memo to self for next time: click on the dinky END button before saying, ‘Thank God that’s over.’
Also from my inbox, I can tell you that Masturbation Month is coming. I’ve even been offered an expert who can guide me through it, but, all the same, I may not be blogging about it.
“Gin and tonic?” says John. He points at the clock. “It’s almost six.”
“It’s actually 6am, John,” says Janet. “But make mine a double. We’ll need sustenance to go food shopping.”
When Janet and John get to the supermarket, they find a long queue all round the car park. “Have you seen all these people?” says Janet, fiddling with her mobile.
“I know. This is going to be so boring,” says John.
“You’re telling me. They’re the least Instagrammable people ever.”
“I’m worried about how close some of them are standing,” says John. “That’s much less than two metres apart. More like nine inches, if you ask me.”
“It’s nothing like nine inches, John,” says Janet.
When they get to the entrance, John says, “Where’s the shopping list?”
Janet frowns at him. “You don’t get this lockdown, do you, John? We just buy lots of anything that looks like it’s running low in the shop.”
“Let’s not forget biscuits,” says John.
“I never forget biscuits,” says Janet.
“Or gin,” says John, grabbing two bottles off the shelf.
An hour later, Janet and John are in aisle seven. John is confused about the contents of their trolley. “But you don’t need TENA pads, Janet.”
“I will do by the time we reach the checkout, John.”
They are about to leave the supermarket when Janet shrieks. “Look, John! The food bank donation box has gone!”
“Don’t worry, Janet. I expect we can donate money online.”
“That’s not the point. I was hoping to pick up tinned tomatoes because there aren’t any left on the shelves.”
After they get home, Janet and John wash their hands for 20 seconds and have a nap for two hours.
Janet wakes up with an idea. “Do you fancy a game of Scrabble, John?”
John agrees on one condition. “Only if you promise not to store all the blank tiles and Ss down your bra.”
“But John, stockpiling is what pandemics are all about. If you won’t play properly, then we shall have to sit on our sagging sofa and watch another episode of Poirot instead.”
After three episodes of Poirot, Janet and John are sitting much closer together on their sagging sofa.
“I say, Janet,” says John as he strokes Janet’s rounded belly. “I don’t know how many weeks gone you are, but I’m so looking forward to our baby.”
“Don’t be silly, John. It’s not your baby. It’s McVitie’s.”
Don’t be like Janet and John.
With the cancellation of major events such as the London Marathon due to coronavirus, many charities are on the brink of collapse, while at the same time facing increased need for their help. Please give generously where and when you can. If you want to help a hungry family, consider the Trussell Trust which supports a nationwide network of food banks.
Fax machines were once cutting edge. “I just got a sandwich faxed to my desk!” claimed a colleague in the early 90s.
He wasn’t quite right, as it happens, since only his order was transmitted by fax.
For those who aren’t sure how a fax works, the gist is that the original document is scanned, converted into a bitmap, then transmitted down a phone line as audio-frequency tones. The receiving fax machine deciphers the tones, recreates the image, and prints it more or less legibly.
Before email, fax was the only way to send a sizeable amount of data quickly without an expensive courier. It made it possible to send letters quickly and, for reporters, to submit articles to newspapers on the day without dictating them to copy-takers.
It also enabled my mother, who lived abroad and had, like most seniors, a keen interest in the weather, to keep me updated without phoning. I well remember the message in which she said it was SNOWING! (underlined three times). She seemed a bit miffed when I faxed back to ask what she expected from Switzerland in January.
I also had a relative in the Middle East who liked using fax. She generally rang first to tell me her message was on its way, and her pronunciation was different to most. As my children enjoyed putting it, “Aunt Delia likes sending fux.”
The desktop fax came into existence around 1948, but it wasn’t widely used until the 1970s and 1980s. Some machines used dedicated lines, while others shared with a regular phone by means of a switch which didn’t always work. Well, mine didn’t.
Another snag is that one rarely knew how many pages would come in, so the supply of paper had to be kept topped up. My roll of thermal paper often ran out inconveniently mid-flow, like a loo roll. And the paper, being thermal, was useless for archiving as the print soon faded like a receipt. You’d have to photocopy the image or message to preserve a record.
Some machines were advanced and did colour, but smaller businesses, like individuals, tended to have basic models and the image definition wasn’t great. When I was arranging the funeral of a cousin, there was a choice of coffins. As it wasn’t clear over the phone how they differed, the undertaker offered to fax over images of each one. This generated a long ribbon of paper with blurred photos that looked identical. Still, I expect the details made little difference to dear cousin Gladys at that stage.
The arrival of email meant the end of the fax for most, but the NHS doggedly continued to favour faxes for important communications such as urgent referrals, citing confidentiality as the reason. Emailing was banned for transmitting patient info – despite the fact that NHSmail is encrypted. Perhaps nobody at the top considered the risk posed by a clutch of paper messages sitting in the out tray of a machine for all to see.
Thus the NHS became the biggest purchaser of fax machines. Some hospitals had over 600 of the things each, and of course GP practices needed them too, using up money that could have found its way into patient care.
Now the NHS has seen the light and the new GP contract decrees that by April 2020 all GP practices should become fax-free. Some already are, but it’s possible that not all practices, or the agencies they deal with, will be prepared to unplug their faxes despite the 17 pages of guidance on the subject. The death throes of the fax, I suspect, could go on for a while.
If your stomach has now settled post-Christmas, you may be ready for the final instalment of the most disgusting diseases in the world. Those who were born a lot longer ago than yesterday may notice that it’s in the same vein for which the late lamented Punch magazine was known.
Should you fancy a condition that goes the distance, consider keeping a pet worm like dracunculus medinensis, aka the Guinea worm. The best place to pick one up is in Africa with your drinking water. Maintenance is dead easy. There’s no need for an aquarium, hutch, or a garden, as it lives just under the skin.
I remember one patient who had his worm for so long that he named it Ali, which seemed the best bet as he couldn’t tell if it was male or female. Ali kept him company for some time, forming little red bumps all over him, until the day she (as we discovered) tried to escape through a huge blister on his arm.
When the blister finally burst, the little dracunculus poked through. Ali turned out to be several feet long. She had to be wrapped around a stick and pulled out gently to avoid breaking her during her outward journey which took two and a half weeks. Bon voyage, Ali!
You needn’t leave these shores to catch something sensational. Syphilis is all Columbus’s fault since, or so the story goes, his sailors brought it back to Europe in 1493.
An epidemic of syphilis spread from Naples throughout Europe in the 16th century. The English and Italians called it the French disease, the French called it the Neapolitan disease, and pretty well everyone thought of it as the Great Pox because smallpox was small potatoes by comparison.
Syphilis is far more contagious than leprosy, as just a few minutes in a shared bed will do. A bed may even be superfluous. One man, inspired by notices in public WCs, claimed to have caught the infection in the loo. “That’s a filthy place to take a woman,” replied the consultant.
Syphilis can mimic anything from tonsillitis to athlete’s foot. It all depends on the stage of the infection.
Early syphilis can be just a painless ulcer called a chancre (pronounced Shankar, which is most unfair on Ravi and family). A few months later, the secondary stage produces symptoms like fever, headache, general malaise, aches and pains, mouth ulcers, enlarged lymph nodes, and rashes. Of course, that’s pretty much what everyone goes to the GP with.
Late syphilis takes years to develop, and it’s downhill from there. Nerves in the legs no longer transmit signals about position, which is one cause of the stomping gait you can see all over London. It also makes you fall into the handbasin when you close your eyes to wash your face. If very wobbly, you may fall into the toilet unless you’ve closed it.
No account of dreadful diseases would be complete without that scourge of the western world that has medics clamping their hands over their mouths and recoiling in horror. You may not be able to get a hospital referral, or, if you do, you’ll find yourself being bundled out of the clinic as soon as possible, usually while you’re still talking, so that the consulting room can be fumigated forthwith.
They may offer you surgery, but you may not live long enough to get to the top of the waiting list. Should you manage to reach the operating theatre, the procedure is likely to be relegated to the most junior doctor because nobody else wants to do it. Blood and pus often pour out, and the hapless trainee surgeon may throw up as a result. The patient has it relatively easy by now, as the whole gory mess is soon tidy and bandaged.
Unfortunately, this unsavoury condition is on the increase. Experts call it IGTN and claim that it spreads via shoe shops. It will impair games of footsie-footsie. It may even interfere with walking.
Like many disfiguring conditions, IGTN has a long incubation period. As I’d like you all to enjoy a healthy and happy New Year, I believe the public should be told more about this disorder. I particularly look forward to the day when every pair of winkle-pickers carries the government health warning Wearing shoes may cause ingrowing toe-nails.