Sunday, November 25, 2012

I love being a Ukulele Lady

Oh dear, I hear you all say, another ukulele post. The woman has gone ukeing mad! And yes, I probably have.

Yesterday, myself and my fellow Strummers from the village headed down to Taunton for the South West Ukulele Union Jam in the Castle Green Inn.  The weather was foul and I have done my poor back in so earlier in the day I had even entertained the thought of  not going, but I'm so glad I did.

The South West Ukulele Union is a meeting place for any uke group in the South West and the idea behind the Jam was to give us an opportunity to meet up and play some choons and just have a really good, rip-roaring time. It was hosted by Taunton Ukulele Strumming Club, a fine bunch of people, if ever there was one.
Budleigh  Ukulele Strumming Club made me want to move to Devon
We arrived at the venue a little nervous, having downloaded the song book and had a bit of a practice. We were not quite sure what to expect. We were a good forty five minutes early so expected there to be a few people there, but not a huge area crammed full of uke players, with others already spilling over into another room next to it. It was strictly standing room only. Fortunately, a chair was found for me and someone kindly lent me a music stand as I couldn't see the projector screen with the songs and chords on it.  We chatted to the people around us, exchanging uke stories, showing off our instruments and getting the drinks in. Strictly non-alcoholic if we were going to last until 6.15pm.

The Stockton Strummers
The first thing that struck me was what a universal instrument the ukulele is.  The room was full of probably one of the most diverse mixes of people I've come across. There were youngsters (many Somerset schools have apparently given up the dreaded recorder for the ukulele - hallelujah!) to senior citizens, hippy types, serious ukers, people in hawaiian shirts, a very glamorous woman playing a white Flying V, a man The uke clearly crosses all social and age boundaries in a way that I think few other instruments do. There were ukuleles of all kinds, standard ones, pineapples, fleas, pink ones, yellow ones, blue ones, even furry ones. There were glitter ones, mirrored ones and stripy maple ones, sopranos, tenors and even a bass uke, which sounds a bit like a bass guitar. The one common thing was that everyone was united in their love of playing ukulele and everyone was smiling. Who cared that it was flooding outside? Not us!

Bet he doesn't play the ukulele!

From then on we covered everything from The Beatles, The Kinks, Elvis, Credence Clearwater Revival, Slade, David Essex, Johny Cash, Marc Bolan, The Zombies, The Box Tops and a few more traditional uke tunes.  Some of the Strumming Groups did a quick showcase, then The Machine That Goes Ting, a predominantly uke band showed how versatile it really is with a bit of Clash and Sex Pistols among other things and two fabulously furry ukuleles.
At 2.30, proceedings kicked off with a lively rendition of 'Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue.' For people like us, who have only ever played in a small group, the sound of 80 ukuleles playing in harmony was the nearest thing I've had to a religious experience and the huge cheer that went up from the rest of the pub showed how much everyone else appreciated it. It was uplifting and joyful and shows why the ukulele really is the answer to world peace. Everyone was smiling, people came from the bar to listen, some joined in with the singing, some stayed all afternoon, a few even danced but I think they may possibly have come from the local alcohol-dependent population.

After than, we jammed again for another hour or so, finishing with Hey Jude, where we all na, na, na nahed for ages because I don't think anyone wanted it to finish. By now, my strumming finger was very sore and my cheeks were aching from smiling so much.

We were so touched by the warm welcome we received from everyone we met and look forward to taking up the open invitation to go down and play with our new buddies in Taunton and look forward to some of them coming up to play in our fledgling strumming group.

Oh no! It's all over
A good few people have joked about us and our ukes, but all I can say is, your loss! We had a fantastic time sharing the ukulele love. If more people played it the world really would be a happier place.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

If you like a Ukulele Lady...

Come closer....I want to tell you something.  Ready?  I've discovered the secret to world peace. <<sharp intake of breath>> I know, you're shocked aren't you? Shocked and stunned that it is me who should have discovered it. What do you think it is?  I could make you guess but we'd be here for years so I'm going to come straight out with it. The ukulele. Yes, the little ukulele (ookoolaylay, to give it its correct Hawaiian prononciation) is the secret to world peace. We should be sending ukuleles to Afghanistan, not soldiers.

A couple of months ago I met up with an old school friend who I had lost touch with about 20 years ago. A friend posted a video on YouTube from her recent birthday party showing her playing her ukulele. It looked a lot of fun.  Hmm, I thought to myself.  It's small and portable so you could take it anywhere. It's only got four strings, so chords looked easy. And I'm sure my friend won't mind me saying that she had no particular musical talent, yet she clearly handled her uke very well.

And here's my lovely friend proving you really can take a uke anywhere
 Then our village pub had an End of Summer Bash and on a lovely, sunny Sunday (yes, there was one. I think) we sat in the garden and sang and danced to a local band, Paper Moon, which heavily featured a uke. One of my friends turned to me and said she really fancied learning to play it. 'Fantastic! Me too.' I replied and before we knew it we had a third recruit as well. and The Ukuladies were born.

Within a few weeks we all had our ukes and were totally and utterly smitten. It's such a joyful little instrument that you can't help but smile when you play it. The Boy and The Girl were scathing, yet within minutes of it arriving, The Boy, who plays the guitar, was wandering around the house strumming it and yesterday, when I announced that I was going to upgrade to a concert sized uke, which is  bit bigger than my little soprano one, The Girl asked if she could have the old one.

Once word got out, another friend told us he had a mandolin and he'd like to join our strumming group. Fantastic, we thought. Three Ukuladies and a Mandolin had a nice ring to it, especially as he was a man. He turned up for our first strumming session, having never played the mandolin. We struggled to tune it - I mean, come on, 12 strings? - and managed to break two strings while we did so.  While we faffed and fretted about it, he borrowed a uke and within minutes had decided to ditch the Mandolin, lovely though it was. He's now the proud owner of a lovely Tanglewood concert uke but he's completely ruined our name!

We've only been playing for a few weeks but already we can sing and play a few songs and it is just so much fun. Why schools bother teaching kids to play the recorder when the ukulele is just as easy and much more fun.Honestly, who ever learns the recorder at school then keeps it up into adulthood?

On the other hand, all these cool and in some cases surprising people play the uke

Neil Armstong - yes, that one!

Jamie Oliver - pukka!

Zooey Deschanel

Zac Efron

Frank Skinner on banjo uke. Griff
Rhys Jones and Harry Hill also play

Not to mention all the famous musicians who play or played the uke; Joe Strummer from The Clash, Dave Grohl from the Foo Fighters, Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam, Roger Daltrey from The Who, George Harrison and Paul McCartney, Kate Bush, Taylor Swift, the list really does go on and on. 

You don't even need a teacher these days, you can learn on YouTube. Just do a search for Ukulele Mike, everyone's favourite Californian, and within hours you'll be able to play something recognisable. And you don't need to spend a fortune. £18 will get you a half-decent instrument to start on. And once you do, you won't stop smiling. Honest! It has also made international stars of the likes of Jake Shimabukuru who is a virtuoso player and Julia Nunes who is just plain fun!

In the right hands (not mine just yet!), the humble uke is an instrument of incredible beauty.

Take a few moments to sit back and listen to Jake playing Bohemian Rhapsody. He's incredible.
We now take our ukes to the pub on Friday evenings and have a little sing-song. So far no-one has thrown us out and we've even had some positive comments. The landlady has now agreed to let us start a strumming group once a month so we are hoping to connect with other ukers. At the end of the month we are heading down to Taunton for the South West Ukulele Union Jam. Eighty or so ukulele players will converge on a pub in the town for an afternoon of jamming and probably from me, not a few bum notes. Afterwards we are going to play for a bit at the Ice and Fire Festival. It should be enormous fun.

So get with the program and get yourself a Uke, and make your own personal contribution to world peace.

Even the leader of the Free World plays one -
well he is from Hawaii.  Get your uke-playing
Obama figurine here!
And for your further delight and delectation, Bette Midler, another well know uke player, singing 'Ukulele Lady' in Las Vegas. Sadly she's not playing but her daughter is.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Carbon Monoxide kills so you should be alarmed!

I normally like to keep  my blog lighthearted and fun but every now and again, you have to get a bit serious. Today is, therefore, A Serious Day.

I like to think of myself as pretty clued up but it was only following coverage of the new regulations in Northern Ireland requiring all new-build houses to be fitted with a carbon monoxide detector, that I learned a couple of things that I didn't know. Now, I was a bit of a duffer in the sciences so please don't groan loudly and pull your hair out if I'm telling you something you already know.  Oil-fired and solid fuel boilers can give off carbon monoxide.  I thought it was just gas boilers. We all know about them. There have been enough tragedies in recent years for us to have no excuse not to know that, but I honest didn't realise that other types of boilers had the capacity to be just as dangerous.

Also, don't bring your barbeque indoors. Obvious too, but when we lived in France, every winter there were a handful of deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning.  The houses are not generally central heated and, with the winters often being far colder than you would imagine, it wasn't unheard of for people to bring a barbeque in and light it for bit of extra warmth. But charcoal can also give off carbon dioxide making them lethal in confined spaces.

Carbon monoxide is a silent killer. It is odourless and colourless and, surprisingly nearly 20% of the British population don't even know that it can kill you.  You would know nothing about it until you wake up dead, to quote a certain 80s heavy rock band. Symptoms include dizziness, nausea and tiredness so if you didn't go on a bender the night before, it's time to get your appliances checked. In a recent survey, 69% of houses didn't have a carbon monoxide detector and nearly half of people questioned didn't get their appliances checked annually.

It's a good move by the Government in Northern Ireland and one we'd do well to follow here but until it becomes law, you should make sure you are safe. You can pick one up for under £20 at your local stores or go online and visit this site. So if you have a gas or oil boiler, be alarmed and don't let the silent killer get you.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Get me a Surrey With a Fringe on Top so I can ride right out of here!

Last night I had the dubious pleasure of helping my parents take their Over 60s Club to an Am Dram production of Oklahoma! (the exclamation mark goes with the name of the musical, it's nothing to do with me)  The dubious pleasure was not taking the seniors, who were a marvellous bunch; lively, fun and very, very drole, it was the prospect of a night of Am Dram.  I'm no fan of Am Dram to be honest, although also to be honest, I did my fair share of it in my younger days. 

The trouble with amateur productions is that they have to make use of the actors they have, rather than being able to cast people who are suitable for the role. The end result was that Miss Laurey was in her 40s, an old maid by the standards of the day and very unlikely to find herself a suitor. Curly McLain was suitably curly but with a good few years on Miss Laurey and with 'Am Dram' make up that made him look a bit like one of Santa's elves on a day pass, I wasn't convinced.  The 'lonely, disturbed farm hand,' Jud Tyler seemed to have been modelled on Norman Bates crossed with Hannibal Lecter and used every Am Dram 'I'm a mental looney' trick in the book. Meanwhile, Will Parker, the cowboy love interest of Ado Annie, the original good time girl, was camp as a row of tents round a cowpoke's campfire and minced around the stage like Larry Grayson on speed.

The triumph of  the evening was Aunt Eller, who was perfect and even managed a very passable American accent and, despite her years, could certainly still tap dance.

Things got off to a bad start when the curtains opened to find Aunt Eller on her rocking chair doing some turn of the century domestic chore while a soundtrack of clucking chickens played.  I can only assume that Aunt Eller was one of the first American battery farmers as the sound of the chooks was deafening. She indicated her displeasure to the conductor/special effects supervisor with a look that would freeze a nuclear winter and the battery farm was quickly reduced to a backyard flock.

She rocked and pounded a stick in a bucket...and rocked and pounded her stick in a bucket...and rocked some more, looking more and more furious. Surely this was Curly's cue to breeze in singing 'Oh what a beautiful morning'?  Maybe it wasn't that beautiful. After a ridiculously long pause where the orchestra reprised their overture, Aunt Eller ad-libbed and strode off to remind Curly that the morning was indeed beautiful and he'd better move his cowboy ass and come and sing about it.

When he eventually did, sing that is, he had a pleasant voice, which was A Good Thing but the comedy pink cheeks were definitely not.

Miss Laurey arrived, all 40 odd years of her, looking like a caricature of American Farm Girl from the Turn Of  The Century. Think oversized dungarees and 'Dorothy' hair.  For anyone not familiar with the story, it basically revolves around a Box Social, where the young girls make a lunch which they put in a lunchbox and the men get to bid on them. If they win, they get to eat lunch with the girl who made it.  Very politically incorrect these days. That's it in a very small nutshell. There are of course various subplots; Ado Annie and Ali Hakim, Ado Annie and Will Palmer (the slapper), Curley and Jud (no, not like that although they do have a very bizarre scene in Jud's bedroom where Curley tells him his rope is perfect for hanging oneself. Auto-erotica perhaps?)

But back to the plot.  Poor Curly wanted to go to the box social with Miss Laurey. He'd even hired a 'Surrey With A Fringe on Top.'  I mean, what girl could say No? Miss Laurey, that's who, the little minx. She's agreed to go with the pathologically insane Jud Tyler, who was now channelling Quasimodo as well as Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter. What on earth was she thinking? But of course she really wanted to go with Curly, she was just playing hard to get.

Light relief came in the form of Ali Hakim, a comedy Persian peddler coated in dark pancake but wearing an oddly 21st Century-looking suit.  He had clearly based his character on Omid Djalili with the accent of Fabio Capello.  It was a bizarre thing.

Much of Act I is taken up with Miss Laurey trying to convince herself/Aunt Eller/Curley that she is not in love with him while Curly tries her to convince her that she is. It was tempting to just stand up and shout 'Oh for God's sake, you know you want him!' after an hour of will she/won't she.  Poor Miss Laurey is so confused that she buys a magic potion from Ali Hakim that he tells her will make her decide. I mean, what choice is there between a rosy cheeked cowboy and a psycho? It's not that hard.

The laudunum in the potion sends her to sleep during which she has a long dream ballet sequence, ballet of course being very popular among the pioneers on the Frontier.  The real reason is that they have to change the scenery and it's a bit complicated so we have to have fifteen minutes of ballet to cover it up. Finally, after a marathon two hours of Am Dram, Scene I ended. The next twenty minutes was spent trying to prise the poor seniors out of their seats, their artificial knees and bad backs having locked in place, and then try to beat the stampede for the toilets. Really, two hours was far too long for them and some needed a good few glasses of restorative wine in the interval to get them through Act II.

Poor Jud Tyler had obviously used the interval to descend into full-blown Am Dram madness and was now stalking around the stage with fists clenched and eyes a-rollin'.  The end result was that every time he came on, my mum and I got a terrible fit of the giggles. As it was a special Senior Citizen's preview the theatre was only about half full so we had to try and mask our giggles. I ended up sounding a bit like Basil Brush on acid.  But it wasn't just us. The majority of the audience descended into very untheatrical fits of the laughter and as I looked round I noticed a sea of shaking shoulders and handkerchieves stuffed in mouths.  I honestly thought I would have to leave the auditorium.

Needless to say, by the time the box social came round, Jud was fully mad and determined to win Mis Laurey's lunchbox in more ways than one. Curly had brought along his loose change but unfortunately for him, his adversary had been saving his pay for years and had managed to amass a small fortune by local standards.  Poor Curly was forced to sell his horse, his saddle and his gun to outbid Jud, who, whatever Curly came up with seemed to have 'two bits more'. It was a bit like eBay. You know, those irritating auctions when someone outbids you by a few pence. But in the end, Curly gets his girlie and within minutes they are married. Fast movers those Pioneers!

But Jud isn't taking this lying down.. or even standing up and dragging his left leg and he gatecrashes the wedding, pulls a knife on Curly, they fight, he gets killed, yada, yada, yada.  It all ends with a rousing chorus of Oklahoma, OK! OK, of course being the two letter code for Oklahoma, you know, like NY for New York or TX for Texas. How clever of them to come up with a system that didn't even come into proper usage until 1963.

My highlights were the deliciously camp cowboy dances which were very YMCA and a young girl who clearly wasn't much of a dancer and spent most of the production looking terribly serious until she remembered to smile and she would then grimace at the audience for about 30 seonds before going back to her serious look.

We were eventually back on the bus home at 11pm after what seemed like the longest performance of Oklahoma! ever. It lived up to it's name. It was Oklahoma and it was OK.

That's me, trying to escape...

Sunday, October 28, 2012

In which I tell you some Exciting News

Well, dear reader, those who have followed me for a while may be aware that I've been writing a book, hence why my blog has not been quite so active as normal.

I put the first 15 chapters on Authonomy, a writing website set up by HarperCollins to help new writers get published, to see whether people thought it was any good or not. The general consensus was that yes, it was actually rather good. With the help of some of the very talented writers on Authonomy, I received lots of really good help and advice and the book, currently called La Vie en Rosé, regularly featured in the top rated books of the week. In fact of the 300 or so people who read it, only one person didn't like it. But then he thought he was The New Messiah so I wasn't particularly bothered.

A couple of months ago I was contacted by the Commissioning Editor of Summersdale Publishing, a great indie publisher, who uttered those immortal words, 'are you looking for a publisher?' Are frogs green? Is the Pope a Catholic? Are the Kennedys gun shy? Do bears sh..... you get the picture.

To cut a short story even shorter, I sent her the 20 plus chapters I had written, she loved them and, fortunately, so did her colleagues and they have offered me a deal to publish it. Me! Yes, I have a book deal.  JK Rowling has nothing to worry about and I certainly won't be giving up my day job but how bloody fantastic is that?  I'm going to be published. Next summer, La Vie en Rosé (although it won't be called that as there is already a book with the same title) will be on the shelf of your local Waterstones.

I sort of feel a bit of a fraud because I've never so much as received a rejection slip. In fact, apart from Summersdale, I've never even sent it out to anyone. It shouldn't be this easy, surely.  How can I be a starving writer slaving away in the garret with just a bowl of chicken bones and water to keep me going when the first publisher who contacts me wants to publish my book?  It all feels a little surreal.

Now the embarrasing bit.  I have to build an internet presence ready for when it does finally make the bookshops.  I've resurrected an old blog I started called The Accidental Author where you can share my publishing journey and if you are on Facebook you can 'like' my Author page complete with hideous photo.

So there you have it. My Exciting News. Now, I have to have the manuscript in by December 15th so it's back to Chapter 29 for me. Be back soon.

Look! That's my signature
on my contract

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Domestic God Meets Domestic Disaster

The Husband is back from working away in the great metropolis of Manchester for eight months making quality entertainment for the great British public and enjoying being on temporary gardening leave until the next project comes up. Having pruned the garden to death he's now throwing his weight behind a massive 'autumn' clean of the house.  He's the male equivalent of Monica in Friends, every so slightly OCD about keeping the house tidy, unlike me, who's a bit more 'relaxed' about it all. He's very much 'a place for everything and everything in it's place' to my 'a place for everything and everything in one a big pile... which I will sort out... eventually.'

The trouble with having moved as often as we have is that we have amassed a vast collection of bit and pieces, furniture, stuff that I don't want to get rid of, you know, just in case.  We are fortunate to have two sheds but with those now groaning at the seams, it's time to look at other options; self storage or a massive garage sale. Only we don't have a garage.  Or there's always Ebay, but as I'm currently boycotting any company that is evading tax that's a no-goer.

It's amazing all the things that we've found. Forty old pie and jelly moulds I bought in an auction - well it seemed like a good idea at the time - some funky door hooks I bought in France, even a carrier bag of old letters dating back to the time I lived in the Middle East.  It's been lovely to read through them. My favourite ones are from my best friend from school, who ended up by accident living down the road from me in Bahrain, telling me she was pregnant, and then another one just after her baby daughter was born, telling me all about it and the trials, tribulations and joys of early motherhood. They are very special. We've recently got back in touch after 20 years and met up a few months ago when she was over from Australia where she has lived for about the same length of time. She's over again so hopefully we'll get another chance for a good old catch up with our ukuleles. But that's another story.  The Husband hasn't so much as kept an old postcard and doesn't really understand my obsession for these old bits of my history but I could never get rid of them, although the bunch of letters from an old boyfriend from that time in my life may just have to.

Today, while I've been doing Important Things, he's scrubbed the kitchen, moved everything out of the way so he can get behind and underneath, and cleaned out the fridge, which is often a bit like an alternative version of Time Team where  we unearth brown, soggy unidentifiable former vegetables rather than ancient ruins.

Someone in the village is asking for recommendations for a good cleaner. Maybe I should put his name forward. He's now attacking the ironing pile and bemoaning the lack of coat hangers but when at any one time, at least half of our clothes are 'in the ironing', I haven't found we've needed that many!  Better make the most of it. The next phonecall could take him away again and then the domestic crown is passed back to me again and I'm definitely more Domestic Disaster than Domestic Goddess. And in the meantime I have a book to finish...

Saturday, October 13, 2012

In which I win the Nobel Peace Prize

Yes! Me!  Honestly, I've won...well me and you if you live in one of the EU countries and 499,999 others. We're all winners according to the Nobel Institute. And how sick must the Norwegians now be for not once but twice turning down the chance to join us and be fellow winners of their own award. Those with eagle eyes, though, will not have missed the fact that the chairman of the Nobel Prize committee is one Thorbjorn Jagland, who's other job is secretary general of the European Council, so in some ways, he just given it to himself.

There a delicious irony in awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to a bunch of countries, some of whom are currently involved in one of the longest wars in European history, in Afghanistan, since The Dutch declared war on the Isles of Scilly. (Oh yes they did!) It lasted 335 years, was call the Driehonderdvijfendertigjarige Oorlog and not a single shot was fired, making it one of the longest wars but also one with the fewest casualties.  The same can't be said of Afghanistan. And that this Peace Prize came on the same day that seven Royal Marines were charged with the murder of an Afghan fighter seems the most ludicrous award since French 'meal times' were awarded World Heritage status, bearing in mind that the French are the largest consumers of McDonalds in Europe.

The Nobel Committee awarded it to the EU for their “advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe”.  Clearly they didn't hear about Sarkozy kicking out all the Roma gypsies because their faces didn't fit or the recent poll that showed two thirds of the French do not want foreign residents to have the right to vote or Hungary, where they are calling for the reintroduction of capital punishment and the ultra-nationalist government preaches anti-semitism. How about Bulgaria, which has failed tocomply with the minimum measures to prevent sex trafficking and remains one of the biggest culprits in the human trafficking in Europe.

Here's a Greek policeman getting a taste of democracy right in the b***s

 Meanwhile Greece, Romania, Bulgaria and Poland share the dubious distinction of having the worst violations of the right to a fair trial and the right to liberty in the EU. In the past five years, human rights violations in the EU have gone up fivefold. 

And this Roma family are definitely not having their human rights abused by the French

 The Eurodrones in Brussels are dancing in the street, a nice change from Athens where they were rioting in the streets in honour of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's visit. 'Get out of our country, you bitch' was one of their peaceful headlines. They hold the Germans responsible for the crushing austerity programme in Greece, that is, when they are not blaming the immigrants and summararily deporting them.

The EU got a nod for preventing large scale war on the continent, particularly between France and Germany. They seem to have prevented that by tying up what is left of the British military, and some other European countries in a pointless war against a largely unknown and it would appear, not that much diminished foe, down Pakistan way and to be honest, these days, with Germany being one of the few economies that is growing despite the current crisis, the French would probably welcome them with open arms - some might say, again.

So what's it all about?  My theory is that on the whole we don't know much about Scandinavia. Some might have gone on a cruise around the Fjords but given the chance, we prefer to holiday in sunny but broke Spain or hot but bankrupt Greece. Most of our knowledge of Scandinavia comes from watching The Killing and Wallander or reading The Girl trilogy by Steig Larsson. From that we learn that Scandinavia is grey in varying shades (no, not those shades), it always rains and it is entirely populated by dour, navel gazing detectives and serial killers. So they wanted to show they had a sense of humour. And what better way to do that on a grand scale but to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU at a time when it is far from peaceful and involved in a long-running war.  What a hoot!  Hats off to Norway for one of the greatest practical jokes of modern times.

The EU isn't the first controversial winner. Last year, Barack Obama won it before the paint had even dried in the Oval Office. It seemed to have been awarded on the basis of what he might do rather than what he had already done which was precisely nothing. Henry Kissinger got it despite his involvement in the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia and of course, anyone with any sense knows that Irina Sendler should have got it for risking her life to rescue Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto but instead it went to Al Gore for his wonderful piece of fiction, The Inconvenient Truth, the only inconvenience being, of course, that most of it was rubbish.

And in the spirit of peace and democracy, there is already an argument over who should actually go and get it. Three presidents are claiming their right; Herman van Rompuy (Belgium), president of the European Council, Jose Manuel Barroso (Portugal), president of the European Commission and Martin Schultz (Germany), president of the European Parliament all clai'm their right to pick up the 921,000 euro prize. I'm quite sure that they will be rushing to pass on the 0.0002 of a euro to each of us who form the European Union. What will you spend yours on?

It's too early for this to be an April Fool's joke, so we have to presume that it is true and they really have gone and given us the Peace Prize at such an inappropriate time but then Alfred Nobel made his fortune from dynamite so we should probably expect a few explosions from time to time.

My little message to the Nobel Prize Committee

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Random Acts of Kindness

In these cynical times it's easy to believe that there is no longer any such thing as a Good Samaritan or a Angel of Mercy. A few hours away from us, police still search for a missing child, while over the past few weeks, burglars have worked their way systematically through our village stealing gardening equipment. So a few days ago it was very refreshing to be reminded that there are people around who will selflessly help out others when a crisis hits them, however big or small.

I needed petrol so went to fill up my car. When I got to the till, I wanted to pay with a card that I rarely use. The only thing was, I discovered I had forgotten my PIN number. I tried twice but it was wrong.  I panicked. It was the only form of payment I had on me.

I told the cashier who was very sympathetic. Could anyone bring me some money? No. The Husband is in Manchester and The Boy can't drive.  Was there anyone in town I could borrow some money from?  Not that I could think of.

Behind me a queue was starting to build. I was so embarrassed and totally at a loss at what to do until a voice asked if I was local. 'Not really,' I told him, still in a mild state of panic. I told him where I live.

'Don't worry, I'll pay for it. You can drop the money round whenever you are passing.' I was stunned. Here was a man I  had never set eyes on before, and who certainly didn't know me, offering to pay for my petrol and get me out of a very sticky situation. He didn't even ask how much it was, just handed over his card. I was stunned and babbled my thanks. He told me it wasn't a problem and gave me his business card so I knew where to return the money. I noticed he was wearing a t-shirt with the name of a local furniture maker from whom we've bought lots of furniture in the past. and asked him if he worked there. He said he did, too modest, as it turns out, to say that he actually owned it.

So how amazing was that? I could have done a runner. I don't live in the town so might never even have crossed his path. Of course, I didn't. I returned it to him the following morning, thanking him profusely. It really wasn't a problem, he told me and wished me a lovely day.  I was really touched.  I believe in karma. What goes around, comes around and I hope one day someone will do something nice for him but by way of a little thank you, I'm including a link to his website here. The furniture is fabulous - and I'm not just saying that because he helped me out.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Cars make and brake up relationships: Conversations behind the wheel are steering our love lives

1.9 million people have  been proposed to in cars
One in five people offer relationship advice in the car

It’s been 45 years since Herbie the love bug hit the big screens and today research from Allianz Your Cover Insurance’s Secret Lives of Cars Report, reveals the role cars are still playing in steering the nation’s love lives.

Love is most definitely in the alpine freshened air with 1.9million UK motorists being proposed to behind the wheel. Despite this romanticism, it’s not all about happy endings on the nation’s highways with 2.3million motorists having the brakes put on their relationships and being dumped in the car.

The report also discovered that motorists are more likely to talk about their love lives and difficult topics in the car with 45% of those questioned revealing that the lack of eye contact makes these conversations easier to approach. Conversations most likely to cause couple tension in the car include holidays (58%), bills (27%) and living arrangements (26%).

Not only do motorists like to discuss their own love lives in cars but men and women are keen to talk about other relationship topics too. The research found that 3.7million male drivers talk about sex and nearly one in five (18%) women admitted they are likely to discuss the relationships of friends’ and family in the car. In addition, a third of women (32%) just enjoy a good gossip in the car.

Of those questioned, 31% people revealed that they use the time they spend in the car with their loved ones chatting about the future, with key topics including:

1)      Relationships / friendships (37%)
2)      Family concerns (34%)
3)      Finances (30%)

Allianz Your Cover Insurance found that there are many reasons as to why motorists are getting in their cars to have open and honest conversations about their love lives. Neil Brettell of Allianz Your Cover Insurance said: “Our report found that one in four believes that the time they spend in cars with others brings them closer together. These findings mean that the conversations drivers have in the car really do steer the direction of their love lives. Drivers like to make use of the time they have when driving to catch-up with their nearest and dearest and talk about future plans

“40% of motorists feel confident when holding conversations in the car which may be why so many decisions and important plans are discussed behind the wheel. However, we’d always encourage drivers to put safety first and not let their in-car conversations distract them from driving safely

The habit of holding conversations about love lives is not limited to motorists themselves as the car provides an opportunity for teenagers to come forward and seek advice about their crushes. Mums are more likely to offer guidance on adolescent heartache compared to their male counterparts with three million providing relationship advice for teenagers.

Allianz Your Cover Insurance is holding a web chat with Dr. Simon Moore from 1-2pm on Friday 28 September to answer people’s questions on the report and how they can best approach conversations in cars. To take part follow Allianz Your Cover Insurance @YourCoverUK on Twitter. Or to find out more visit the Facebook fan

To download a copy of the Secret Lives of Cars family factsheet please visit:

This post is sponsored by Allianz Your Cover Insurance

Sunday, September 23, 2012

In which we are Puppy School Failures!

Do you ever find yourself doing something that makes no sense whatsoever? Something that can only make your life more difficult and complicated?  What? No-one? Just me then is it?
Well, I’d like to introduce you to our new ‘complication’.
Don't be fooled by those puppydog eyes!
Yes, we have a puppy. Not content with working, writing a book and having a husband who is often away for months on end, we’ve got a puppy.  I don’t quite know how it happened but I blame the cat. Yes, it’s is definitely the cat’s fault.  If he hadn’t caught a baby bird, I wouldn’t have gone to the Wiltshire Wildlife Hospital which just happens to be across the road from The Dogs Trust. But just in case you think we got a puppy on a whim, because after all, a dog is for life, not just for Christmas (or Christmas dinner if you are in North Korea – bad joke, I know) we didn’t. The Girl has wanted a dog for a long time and after a lot of thought we agreed. The thing was, I had in my mind a mature, quiet Labrador, or maybe even something smaller. Well we got smaller alright, for the moment at least, but I certainly didn’t have in mind a certifiably insane, shoe-snatching, paper shredding lurcher x border collie puppy who looks suspiciously like Grommit, of Wallace and Grommit fame. He’s called Caleb after a character in some American teen drama The Girl watches.
He is adorable, unless you are hopping down the garden chasing him because he’s just done a SWAT assault on your shoe as you put try to put it on and legged it out of the back door, or he’s just shredded a whole toilet roll in a nanosecond then peed on it for good measure, or dry-humped any one of the neighbours’ dogs even though he’s only four months old. Thank goodness his dangly bits come off next month!  The Girl is now realising just how much work a puppy is but she’s been putting in the hours with his training and she had him sitting on his first day with us and he’ll come when he’s called…most of the time.
So when we enrolled for Puppy Training classes we were confident that he would soon be top of the class. Oh, how wrong we were!
 Yesterday, we went to our first class in a local village hall. It’s a ‘nayce’ village, if you know what I mean. He was certainly the only crossbreed, and definitely the only rescue dog.  We walked in last, to find five other Barbour-clad, Hunter-wellied owners sitting quietly with their little pups at their feet.  Caleb, surrounded by all this puppydom, turned into a Tasmanian devil with a nasty case of ADHD.  He does this thing where he springs into the air from all fours and turns through 360 degrees.  It’s quite gymnastic in its place. Like the garden. In the confines of the small village hall it had the effect of letting off a hand grenade in a cupboard. The other owners (and puppies) shrank back in their seats as he whirled and yelped and whined.  Caleb has grown quite a bit since the picture above and was at least four times the size of any of the others. He has paws like meat plates and in my head I’ve always thought he’d be the size of a Labrador, maybe a little bigger.  As I compared him to Bella, a little black lab puppy who is the same age, I now realise he’s likely to be the size of a small carthorse.
So the Puppy Trainer introduced herself and asked us to tell us a bit about our dogs. I don’t have a clue what anyone said because Caleb was doing a pretty impressive ‘Hound of the Baskerville’ impression. We moved onto the first exercise. Getting your puppy to listen to you. Fat chance! He was on his fourth high speed circuit of my chair, tying my legs firmly in place.  He’ll usually do anything for food. In fact, he’ll usually sit quietly and look at you with his big puppy eyes if you have a treat in your hand. Not tonight. Treats? Pah!  There were puppies to play with. He whined, yelped and spun round and round, pausing only for a very brief moment to wee on the floor.
The PT was sympathetic. ‘Being a rescue dog, he probably hasn’t been handled too much.’ she explained to our shell-shocked classmates. We didn’t have the nerve to tell her we’ve had him for a month. It’s just him. He gets ridiculously excited when he sees another dog or human being as our neighbour will testify when Caleb met him outside the pub and in his excitement, he peed on his leg – the dog that is, not the neighbour.
After a few more failed exercises, it was ‘teaching your dog how to behave when he meets people.’  Well he knows how be behave (see above). As there were two of us and both owners of the Posh Labrador Puppy had come along, The Girl and Mrs PLP were asked to go round and meet each puppy while the owner was shown how to stop them jumping up/eating their faces/weeing themselves. It’s all about being calm. The Girl and Mrs PLP made their way round each dog, while the owners used various techniques to keep the pups under control.  Mrs PLP got to Caleb, shook her head slightly and scurried back to her seat and the safety of her perfectly behaved puppy sitting quietly with Mr PLP.  Caleb whined, bounced and fell over on the slippery floor.
We were asked to bring some bedding so we could practice getting our dogs to sit on it  when asked. Every puppy sat nicely on its rug or fleece. Well almost every puppy. Our fleece was bunched up under my chair as Caleb did ‘wheelspins’ on it trying to get over to the others to play. Another fail.  The Puppy Trainer suggested we kept him on his lead in the house so we could control him.  But in the house, this is his normal position…

… at least when he’s not tearing round the garden in ever decreasing circles until he falls over, and being part greyhound he’s fast, or pulling the apples off the apple tree, or chewing up the doormat (we’re on number three) or stalking Gizmo the Cat, who is definitely boss in case you were wondering.
Eventually it was the last part of the class. The puppy socialisation.  The puppies were going to be allowed to meet each other. There was an audible intake of breath and a few nervous glances in our direction until the Puppy Trainer reassured them that the pups would be kept on their leads. Cue audible sigh of relief.
When Caleb’s turn came he bounded around the room in a state of complete overexcitement trying to jump on the other puppies. Each nose sniff was greeted with a whine and a yelp, and poor Buster, a very nervous Labrador puppy, retreated under a chair and refused to come out.  Surprisingly, Callie, a tiny Westie puppy who barely came up to Caleb’s knees, was quite entranced with him. Caleb’s history with female dogs is not good, despite his young age and in their presence spends most of his time ‘having a piggy back’ as a friend’s young daughter commented.  I had visions of poor Callie being publicly violated, or worse still crushed to death but fortunately it passed without incident.
We’re hoping for an improvement next week and certainly none of our classmates would recognise the laid back pupsicle who’s asleep on the sofa next to me with his legs in the air. Watch this space…
Smile Grommit!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

She's in the A Team...

** Warning: Proud Mummy Moment Coming Up**

The Girl took her French A level this year. Nothing unusual in that, of course, except that she's only 14. She has actually spent more time in school in France than she has in the UK and is bilingual but nonetheless it hasn't been easy for her to be in the same class as people three or four years older than her.

Her school has been incredible in embracing the fact that she is bilingual and always going the extra mile to help and nurture her. She and The Boy were both entered for their GCSEs three years early and both achieved A*. She was able to go on to take her A level as she still has French in her timetable. For The Boy, who already had the GCSE under his belt and so wasn't taking it as part of his options, there was no room in his timetable for it. He'll take his next year as an additional A level. If he plays his cards right he may end up with 5 A levels.

She's come up against a certain amount of 'well, it's easy for you' sort of comments but I just remind her to tell them that her journey to being bilingual involved being dumped in a school in a foreign country where she couldn't even speak the language. It's a scary situation to find yourself in at the age of 6.

The school had some reservations about entering her for her A level, not because of the language but because the syllabus is aimed at 17 and 18 year old and requires a level of maturity not always present in someone of her age. She was expected to discuss renewable energy and the cult of celebrity, something that would be quite a challenge in your own language at that age.

In the end, she did really well. Better than really well. She got an A and full marks in all of her papers. I embarrassed her horribly by tearing up and rambling incoherent thanks to her French teacher, who was just as proud of her as I was.

We have been so lucky to get them into such a marvellous school, a blessed relief after her years in school in France where she was forced to take English as a Second Language 'because that's what's on the curriculum, Madame.' The Sixth Formers have taken her under their wing, never once considering her a little upstart. They called her Le Petit Dictionnaire and used her as an extra learning resource, not just with the language but in French culture. I dare say they all have a good line in French slang and swear words. In France they refused to accept that teabag wasn't hyphenated, or that Prince Charles didn't go to Rugby School because that's what their textbook said.

So, at the ripe old age of 14 she already has 275 UCAS points to her name and I feel that something very worthwhile has come out of our time in France.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

I love the Olympics!

There, I've said it. Me, who has never so much as watched a whole Olympics before. Even living in the same village as a past Olympian didn't pique my interest for the Games.

But  I've spent the last two weeks glued to the television.When did we get so good at sport? I'm sure the last time I watched we regularly limped home in 6th place, with the exception of the rowers who always seemed to do well and I cheered with the best of them when Sir Steve Redgrave, still the greatest Olympian for me because he excelled at his sport while battling ulcerative colitis and Type 1 diabetes, won his fourth gold in the Coxless Four.

Maybe because it was a home Games, maybe because we were watching it all in our own time zone, but from the magnificently fantabulous Opening Ceremony to the last note of the Closing Ceremony, I was transfixed.

I cried when Mo Farah won his second gold and cheered myself hoarse when Jessica Ennis won the Heptathlon. I jumped around the room when the rowers came home with so many medals and had the wonderful experience of being in Ed McKeevor's home town at the very moment he won his gold in the Canoe Sprint. I watched the beauty of the dressage, and  peered through my fingers at Tom Daley and the divers, not because I have no head for heights but because I have a low tolerance level for men in budgie-smugglers. I fell secretly in love with Usain Bolt and punched the air with Bert du Clos when his son beat Michael Phelps in the swimming. If I could, I'd grow sideburns like Bradley Wiggins.

The media would have us believe that we couldn't put on an Olympic Games; the transport network would collapse, the athletes would all miss their event while they were stuck in traffic jams. Al Quaeda would definitely launch an attack and so they droned on like modern day prophets of doom. But we stuck it to all the naysayers and gloom mongers and put on what is widely agreed to be the best Olympic Games of the modern age. Even The Australian grudgingly admitted it was probably better than Sydney 2000, and that was a fabulous event, although in fairness I only watched the closing ceremony. It was probably the best advert for all that is good in this country, for our wonderful people, our slightly quirky sense of humour, our eccentricity and the beauty of our country.  I had no doubts about it. If nothing else, we can put on a good event. Look at the Queen's Jubilees, the Royal Weddings, we have lots of experience.

But to top it off by coming a very easy third in the medals table, from a country that is supposed to be the fattest, laziest and drunkest in Europe according to, oh yes, the media again, was just pure joy.

The only downside for me, not surprisingly, was the football. I caught the last few minutes of the GB-Korea match and the unedifying sight of the GB supporters booing the Koreans every time they came up to take a penalty. I was quietly pleased when the Korean knocked them out. This behaviour was definitely not in the spirit of the Olympics. I was unaware of the controversy beforehand, with Northern Ireland and Scotland refusing to allow their players to take part in a combined team and the Welsh players refusing to sing the National Anthem. I was delighted to read in the papers today that there will be no Team GB football in Rio. Hooray I say!  Strangely enough, Welsh and Northern Irish athletes had no problem competing for Team GB in other disciplines. Is it any wonder I hate everything about football?  Even the women's team players seemed crass and vulgar compared to the other athletes.

Three days after the end of the Games, I am in full Olympics withdrawal mode. It did wonders for our national spirit in these recessionary times, giving us something to focus on apart from politicians and the economy. For two glorious weeks, nothing else mattered as we cheered on our national athletes, many of whom had overcome lack of funding and made huge personal sacrifices to be there. They are our new role models and long may it continue. More Ennis and less Kardashian would make me a very happy girl.

Let's hope that the legacy of the Olympics continues and we can build on our stunning success and get more young people into sport. I'm pushing The Boy to work hard at his rowing so I can be the Bert du Clos of the Rio Olympics!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Dear Monsieur Hollande...

As we go into the second week of  NotTheParisOlympicsYetAgain 2012, I can't help but think that maybe the French president, Francois Hollande, is rather wishing he'd kept his mouth shut when he visited the games last week.

As he joined David Cameron for one of the handball matches, he couldn't help but gloat over France's superior medal tally, rather patronisingly commenting that he would put France's medals into a 'European' pot so us Brits could be proud to be Europeans.

What a difference a week makes. With Team GB sat in third place in the medal tables, comfortably separated from France by a country which eats dog - as one spoof news website said - it is probably Monsieur Hollande who will be begging for Britain's superior haul of medals to be added to his European pot. Smugness never befits a politician and has a funny way of coming right round and biting you on the derriere. 

We don't need to be proud to be Europeans, Monsieur Hollande. We're very proud to be British. Go Team GB!

Were are all zee French medals? Zut alors, zay win ze Tour de France
and now zay whoop our sorry derrieres in ze medal tables

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

My own little bit of Olympic history

 I thought I'd start this post by sharing with you my American cousin's e-mail that she sent to me shortly after the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 games. Patty had been at the 1948 opening ceremony as her dad, my grandfather's cousin, was head boatsman for the US Olympic team. Patty had been on a cycling holiday in the UK and ended up at the Games by accident, when a friend who had tickets fell ill.  She still has a movie her mother made of the Ceremony. What a wonderful slice of history.

"... I spent 4 hours with you last night in London via TV.  What a performance!!  However, I couldn't help contrast it with the 1948 opening ceremony when it was ALL the athletes, real doves released, and only one torch bearer bringing in the flame -- Roger Bannister, I think.  There might have been some speeches, then the athletes came in country by country led by boys (scouts I think) carrying the country flag.  (These little boys stood in front of each country throughout the ceremony, fainting regularly in the terrific heat -- 95 I think.)  I am going to watch Mother's movie (I had it transferred to DVD) of their 1948 trip and I hope it has some of the opening ceremony on it.  The best part for me was outside Wembley Stadium mingling with all the athletes prior to the ceremonies as we tried to find Daddy.  We never did find him.  One of the gorgeous Irish athletes in his green jacket was quite taken with cousin Grace as she was a beautiful 6 foot girl.  We were so lucky to get to the opening ceremonies.  The old buddy of Daddy's in whose home we stayed in Windsor -- along with Mother and an Aunt Violet -- had precious tickets to the opening ceremony and then he came down with a terrible attack of gout and couldn't attend so we all got to go -- Mother, cousin Grace, friend Sally and me  (we three had just finished our 8 week bicycle trip throughout the British Isles).  Wonderful memories."

Our family has had a long association with rivers and boatbuilding, my dad's side of the family being one of the foremost builders of Thames Lighters. 

Photo of Thames Lighters with the family business
in the right hand corner. This is at the National Maritime
Museum although we have a better copy at home
There is a photo of their boatyard in the National Maritime Museum and  a road named after them in Southwark, where much of their business was based. 

Patty's dad, George, was the son of an itinerant boat builder from Teddington in Middlesex, who went on to become the head boatsman for Eton College, hand building racing sculls for the  college rowing team, later helped by George and his brother Richard (Dick). In 1910, Dick won the coveted Doggett Coat and Badge race, believed to be the oldest continuous sporting event in the world.  It is open to six competitors each year who are watermen, making their living on the Thames. Winners received a red coat and matching breeches as well as a large silver badge, almost the size of a dinner plate.  In the early 1900s, a victim of internal politics and rivalries at Eton, he lost his job and although his position was offered to his sons, in a show of loyalty to their father, they turned the offer down. With little work around they decided to emigrate to one of the countries of the Empire and although Australia was a favourite due to the popularity of rowing, they opted instead for Canada which had a ready supply of cedar for building the boats. 

After a hard couple of years working at logging sites around British Columbia, they accepted a commission to build a racing shell for the University of Vancouver. Soon word spread that professionally built racing sculls were available in British Columbia and before long they were contacted by the University of Washington rowing coach, Hiram Conybear, and asked to build 12 eight seater shells for the Varsity Rowing Team (known as the Huskies).  They called for their father to help and he arrived from England only to find that Coach Conybear could now only afford to build one shell. Stuck for work again, George went to work for Boeing, while Dick was asked to build racing shells for Yale University, a position he kept for the rest of his working life. Meanwhile, in 1922, George was able to return to his true passion, building the best and fastest racing sculls in the world for the University of Washington in Seattle, where the family still lives.  He is responsible for many of the innovations of modern rowing such as sliding seats, lightweight oars and a unique steering system that replaced the old tiller.

The US team edge out the Germans to win Gold
in the 8 man event at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
After an unbeaten season, the University of Washington 8 man crew won the national qualifiers for the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. The Germans were hotly tipped to win, but in a boat that George had designed especially for the Games, and in front of a crowd of 100,000 spectators, the US team came from behind to beat the German and Italians and win the Gold medal. Adolf Hitler was apparently not very happy. The boat, named the Husky Clipper, still hangs from the ceiling in the University boat house dining room.

The next Games were held 12 years later in 1948 in London and George was not only head boatsman for the US team but was also appointed coach of the four man (quad) crew. So that's how Patty ended up at the Games. George's crew won Gold in their event and, although the eights was won by the University of California, they were at least in one of his boats.

More gold medals followed at the Olympics in 1952, 1956, 1960 and 1964 before George retired from professional boat building in 1970. His son, Stan, coached several successful US Olympic rowing teams himself and in 1984 co-founded a Rowing Foundation in his father's name, to promote the sport in the Northwest of the US. It is now home to 8 rowing clubs and over 400 rowing enthusiasts and champions young rowers.

Today, although they have largely moved away from the handbuilt cedar boats to more modern fibreglass ones, George's boats are still considered some of the finest in the world. In 1999, George was voted one of Seattle's 25 most influential sports figures of the 20th Century.

The Boy has just taken up rowing and has taken to it like a duck to water. Must be the family genes. Maybe one day we'll see a member of George's family rowing one of his boats in a competition.

So there you have it. My own little bit of Olympic history. Not only that, it is this history that has reunited our two sides of the family after nearly 90 years. Growing up I had always heard the story of George and his racing shells but in 1910, when George and Dick emigrated, communication was so much more difficult and his side and my side of the family lost touch. It was while researching my family's Thames Barges that I came across the website for George's Racing Foundation. I got in touch and shortly heard back from Stan and Patty. Despite their advancing years (and I'm sure they won't mind me mentioning it) we have exchanged e-mails for the past few years and between us filled in a lot of our shared family history. Stan very kindly sent me a wonderful book he had written, his memoirs of a life in rowing, which sits proudly on my coffee table.  I'm often amazed at the strong family resemblance between us.

We found some amazing coincidences.  I've walked past their grandfather's old house in Teddington many times, not knowing of the link to our family history. Not only that but I moved to a little village on the Thames, not believing there to be any family connections at all. In fact, we'd been living in London and I had never even heard of  this particular village before.  I later discovered that George had grown up just down the road and had gone to a little village school where my own children went to nursery some 90 years later. And George's wife was called Frances Huckle, which was the same name as my best friend from primary school. A relation? That would be a coincidence too far!

I'm very proud of our family links to the Thames, to rowing and to the Olympics and it has been lovely to share Patty's memories of our little bit of Olympic history. We'll both be glued to the action at Eton Dorney, where, for our family, it really all began.

George Yeomans Pocock, master boat builder, who
changed the face of modern rowing. Taken in 1959
in his workshop