Sunday, December 15, 2013

Happy 18th!


I can hardly believe that it's been 18 years since you made your way reluctantly into the world, 3 weeks late, a shade under 11lbs, effectively signalling the end of my bikini wearing days and the start of one of my greatest journeys.

You started off doing things your way and eighteen years later, not much has changed! It wasn't the easiest birth and the post-partum haemorrhage you set off left the delivery room looking like the scene of a slasher movie, while the three units of blood I had transfused put an end to any plans I might have had to be a blood donor, it being the height of the mad cow outbreak. Quite appropriate some might say.

But it was worth it. Every minute that I thought they had stitched my stomach to my navel, every awkward shower I took while hooked up to my trusty drip, every moment that I wondered if I would ever feel normal again, every minute I spent like Daisy the Dairy Cow, attached to an industrial sized (or so it seemed) breast pump that reminded me of the milking machines on my uncle's farm because you refused to breast feed, every failed attempt at controlled crying, every mile I drove around the Dublin hills trying to get you off to sleep, only for you to wake up the moment we got back home, every tear of exhaustion, every split lip, grazed knee and bumped head. Every single moment was worth it because you are, in fact, amazing. You and your sister are my greatest and proudest achievements.


Despite everything you were a dream baby, sleeping through the night from birth, happy, smiley and content. You crawled at five months and walked at 10 months and from then on you were on a voyage of discovery. Every plug socket, every button and knob, every video recorder, every radio, every television. They were all fair game in your mission to retune the world. What you couldn't fiddle with, you climbed on. Your record was five split lips in seven days because whatever you climbed on, you invariably fell off. My life was one long round of half-drunk cups of coffee and bloody cotton wool.

At 15 months, you suddenly decided that sleep was for wimps. We tried everything. Relaxing oils, calm, quiet bedtime routines, music, but the only thing that got you to sleep was going for  drive in the car. Except of course you woke up the minute we got home. In the end, I spent hours sitting on your bedroom floor trying to creep ever closer to the door but the moment I tried to leave you would wake up and cry for me. With your sister due in a matter of months we brought in our secret weapon...Grandma.  In a few days she managed to do what I had failed in for months and peace was restored to our house. It was achieved just in time for Emily's arrival. You loved her from the moment you saw her and, apart from a bit of a wobble in France, you have remained staunch friends and allies. You have always looked out for her because she's not as strong as you are.

As you got older you developed a fascination for knowledge. You weren't interested in story books. You wanted to know facts.  Each morning you would wake me up with the same words. 'Mummy, did you know...' and then you would regale me with fact, after fact, after fact. You were incredibly observant and constantly amazed us with the things you noticed. I still remember walking up the path to Legoland and you suddenly shouted, 'Mummy, look at that bug', and pointed to a green insect on a green leaf about 30 feet away. How you saw it I will never know. It's a talent you still have today. Only last year we were watching a film on DVD and you commented that the sound man was in shot running along with a boom mike. No-one else had noticed and in fact it took two goes of going back over the film until we found the shot you were talking about. It must have lasted about a second and we struggled, even in slow motion, to see it.

You went on your first plane journey at the age of three weeks and by the time you went to school we have lived in Ireland for two years, Portugal for seven months, Cyprus for six months and the Czech Republic, on and off, for eight months.  You were a seasoned traveller and every country gave you more opportunity to increase your knowledge.  When you started school your teacher commented that you had a general knowledge far in advance of your age. Everywhere you went, Pooh Bear went too...until that day we left him in the toilets at Heathrow Airport. You were distraught. We arranged for family and friends abroad to send you messages and postcards from Pooh, who had decided on a whim to go and travel the world, at least until we had time to track down a replacement. Who knew there were so many different Winnie the Poohs and that yours, bought by a relative in the US, was simply not available in the UK. In the end, we bought the closest match we could find. I could barely see the difference. We engineered a reunion. You looked at him for a split second and said, 'he's very nice but he's not my Pooh Bear.' Foiled!


You were a very high maintenance child. Always needing stimulation, not good with your own company, no television babysitting for you. You were independent, persistent, assertive, confident and extroverted, qualities we admire in adults, less so in young children. You also couldn't bear labels in clothes, seams in socks and any other kind of physical discomfort. Taking you to the hairdressers was a nightmare as you would complain for days afterwards of the bits of hair itching you.  The someone introduced me to Mary Sheedy Kurcinska's book 'Raising your Sprited Child' and it all fell into place. But all the same everyone loved you and you loved everyone else.
With your Godfather, Ciaran Senior
You loved school from the first moment. It gave you more opportunities to soak up information which you did, all except for vowels. You didn't quite get those! At one stage I thought you would never learn to read because hit, hat and hot seemed indeciperable to you but then it all suddenly clicked and you scrambled your way up the Oxford Reading Tree at top speed.


When you were 8, we moved to France. Like everything else, you met the challenge head-on. I can still remember your first day at school in France. I dropped you off in the playground and left you looking more than a little lost and bewildered. Maitresse wasn't exactly the nurturing kind! I parked a little way from school and phoned Janie and Grandma and bawled. Janie offered to adopt you! When I picked you up at the end of the day, you skipped out of school shouting 'au revoir' to your new school friends. The Ecole Publique Claude Nougaro couldn't have been more different from your nice little prep school on the edge of Windsor Great Park.


In many ways you loved France but the education system beat you down. It wasn't for you. A child with an enquiring mind is not exactly a welcome addition to a French classroom. After four years you had lost your sparkle. Even Monsieur Peyssoneau said so. You were  bilingual and had shown you can bloom wherever you are planted but it was time to think about moving on.


At 14 we moved back, down to the West Country, an area we didn't know and had no links with. It was another adventure that you met head on.


The English system suited you so much more and you thrived in an environment that nurtured individuality and intellect. You made fantastic friends who will probably be with you for life...

took up rugby...

 and rowing...

and were the Year 11 Prom King (don't worry, I would never embarrass you with the 'official' Prom King and Queen photo in that godawful crown!)


It was the right decision. You've done all the things you wanted to do be it Bestival, Glastonbury and Reading or your DofE award or just taking advantage of all the things that living in the depths of rural France didn't offer you.
Sorry Mrs Farr, he really didn't have tonsillitis...
This year has been a difficult one for you and for all of us. We could not possibly have foreseen what was going to happen. Despite Dad's sudden departure from our lives just weeks before your ASs, you struggled on with them and did well (OK, well the less said about Chemistry the better but you were always going to drop that!). We fought a pitched battle with the school over Biology and won and you now have offers from Universities that had previously said they wouldn't take  you.  You led that battle, you weren't afraid to take on your teachers or to speak out and you are now showing them that we were right and they were wrong.

I know you have sometimes felt that you have to be the Man of the House when you should still be young and carefree and you have unfailingly supported your sister, who has found this situation harder than all of us, but you have grown so much as a person and I am more proud of you than you will ever know. I'm sorry Dad didn't think it 'worth it' to come down and spend your 18th with you and maybe his card will arrive on Monday but know this, you will always have one parent who will fight for you, support you, love you and drive a thousand miles to spend half an hour with you if I need to or you need me to. You have a wonderful older half-brother who I'm sure will always be there for too as will your maternal grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. As for the rest of them, well it's their loss. You will do great things in spite of all this and in years to come relationships may be mended, or maybe they won't. You have already shown emotional maturity way beyond your years in some of the hard decisions you have made and you have a strong sense of right and wrong which will serve you well in the future.

You continue to amaze and inspire me and, okay, your taste in music may be a bit iffy but one day you'll hit 30 and realise that it is just a random selection of sounds and not real music, just like your Mum used to say!


The last eighteen years have been our own Incredible Journey and I can't wait to see what the next eighteen bring.

Happy Birthday!


Sunday, December 1, 2013

Who Says Thighs Doesn't Matter? (with apologies for the bad grammar)

Well The River Cottage Diaries has become a bit serious of late so it's time to inject a bit of humour and gratuitous photos of well-muscled rugby players into it again in honour of the QBE Autumn Internationals.

Those of you who have been with me for a few years will know that I LOVE rugby. I purposely steered The Boy away from football by sending him to a school that didn't play it. Then of course we moved to South West France where rugby is practically a religion, and one that I'm more than happy to worship at the alter of. He now plays for the town's Colts team - currently top of the Dorset and Wilts Merit Table, which is a good thing, and has the very first signs of a cauliflower ear,which isn't.

I wrote about rugby here (amazingly this post has been viewed by over 10800 people - I bet they were all women too!), here (only a mere 2000 views, that one) and here, (6000 views for that one) and in many more places over the years.

A friend suggested today that women and thighs is the same as men and boobs. Yes, I'm happy to go along with that. We women can be just as shallow. The good thing though is that rugby players thighs are not surgically enhanced. They are all one hundred percent natural.

Back in the days of Chris Moyles' Breakfast Show on Radio 1 he did a 'Rugby Thigh Challenge' and his producer got to measure James Haskell's thighs. Now that's what I call a dream job!

26.5 inches in case you were wondering
The term 'Rugby Thighs' has even made it into the Urban Dictionary with suggestions that the thighs of a rugby player are pretty damn near perfection. I'd agree with that as would most of the bodybuilding forums where the question is often asked 'how can you get thighs like a rugby player?'. I'd have thought the answer tothat is simple. Play rugby.

Bizarrely, if you Google 'rugby players thighs' one of the paid adverts that comes up is 'Pretty Ukrainian Ladies'. Whether or not that means they have rugby player's thighs or not, well, someone else can check that out.

And the rugby year wouldn't be complete without the annual Dieux du Stade calendar, which I have discussed in the past (all in the name of research of course). While I'm not sure about the inclusion of a couple of French football players, I mean, it's not rugby is it, I hope you will enjoy 'le teaser' which you can see here

My current favourite pair of thighs belong to young George North, who plays for Wales. When he was first called up, Warren Gatland, the Wales coach said of him, 'He is a big, physical player. Last time I saw a pair of thighs like that was on some of the Samoans back in New Zealand.' So apparently it's not just a girl thing!

George brings a new meaning to 'thighs like tree trunks'
And to finish up, and show how really shallow I am, here's a gratuitous photo of the Le Caveman, Sebastien Chabal, who has some of the best thighs in the game. Boy do I miss watching him play...


Thursday, November 28, 2013

Stop the silence, end the violence...

This week is National Domestic Abuse Awareness week. Who’s wearing their white ribbon? Not many of you, I’m guessing. In fact, I’m also guessing that not many of you are even aware that NDAA week is going on. Domestic abuse, sadly, does not enjoy the same level of awareness and support as, say AIDS/HIV with their red ribbons and Breast Cancer Awareness with their pink ones.

This reflects that fact that Domestic Abuse is still a hidden problem, hidden both by the victims and the perpetrators, as well as those around them who stay silent either out of fear or an unwillingness to get involved
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There have been some real strides made in the fight against domestic abuse, not least in what is now considered to be abuse. It’s not just the punches and the kicks, it’s the name-calling, the isolation, the preventing them from seeing friends and family, the financial control.  Here in Wiltshire we took part in the pilot for the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme, otherwise known as Clare’s Law, after Clare Wood, who was murdered by an ex-partner with a history of violence. A history she knew nothing about. In Clare’s case, when she finally called the police, they took 24 hours to arrive. By that time, her ex-partner had murdered her and set fire to her body.

Here in Wiltshire, we are lucky to have a very proactive Police force who work closely with our Domestic Abuse Reduction Group. The county, historically, has higher than average levels of domestic abuse, in part because of the large military presence. Sadly, our ‘heroes’ are over-represented in domestic abuse statistics and the military is dragging its feet and not engaging with the support that is available both to perpetrators and victims. In 2009, the University of Bristol started to research the problems of domestic abuse within military families after professionals had highlighted the higher than average abuse figures. An on-line survey was made available to military families for a three month period. Only five people responded.
Further research was carried out that showed that 60% of domestic violence victims from military families didn’t seek help because it would have a negative impact on their partner’s career.

While public perception of domestic violence has changed radically over the years, and the ‘I gave my wife a good slapping to keep her in order’ mentality is no longer acceptable, still too few of us really understand domestic abuse, its impact on the victim and on their family. How often do people say ‘well I don’t understand why she stays with him’ as if that somehow makes her culpable? And domestic abuse is far from being a white, working class problem. It affects all areas of society and all types of relationships.

Here is my friend Kate’s story. She is a university-educated professional with a demanding job.  Kate obviously isn’t her real name.

When I first met my ex-husband he was kindness personified. I felt truly blessed to be with him. In the last 10 years though, he changed. He suffered long bouts of unemployment following the financial crisis which led to some serious financial issues. I remember an old saying. ‘When debt comes in the door, love goes out the window’. Suddenly, the kind, loving man I married changed. I felt I was constantly walking on eggshells, afraid to say anything in case it set off one of his moods. He went from calling me ‘darling’ to saying I was a lazy, bitch. He thought nothing of belittling me in front of my family and friends and sometimes, when we went out, I would feel physically sick when I saw the signs that he was about to kick off. It was all done very quietly, no shouting or anything, just insults and humiliation.

The first time he hit me was on the way back from a holiday in France. We had got stuck on the peripherique for an hour and as a result, we missed the ferry. It was the last ferry of the night so we were stranded in Calais.  Somehow this was my fault.  We drove off and parked up on the outskirts of the town. An argument started and for once I tried to stick up for myself. I got out of the car to have a cigarette but he followed me and told me to get back in. When I refused, he punched me in the side of my head. I was too shocked feel the pain. After that, he didn’t stop. He chased me round the car punching and slapping me. He hit me so hard that he ripped my earring out of my ear. He then grabbed me and threw me into the car. I sat, cowering against the door, bleeding from my ear and my mouth, while he ranted at me for ‘making him do it.’  The textbook actions of an abuser. Why didn’t I leave him then? Well I told myself that it was a one off. I made excuses for him. I loved  him.

They say the first hit is the hardest and every one after that gets easier. It was certainly true. After that, the physical abuse got worse along with the emotional abuse. He made me feel that I was unloved and unloveable. He wore me down, destroyed my self-esteem and made me doubt myself. Unknown to him I kept a photographic record of all the injuries and when he eventually tried to strangle me I realised that my life probably was in danger and I needed to get free of him. During the period of contrition that often followed his attacks, I told him that if he didn’t leave, I would go to the Police. Fortunately for me, he left. He now lives with another partner. I told her about his violence but she wasn’t interested. Friends often ask why I didn’t go to the Police and the answer is simple. I was too embarrassed. I’m a middle class, well-educated professional. Domestic abuse isn’t supposed to happen to people like me, is it?
Embarrassment is one of the biggest reasons why victims of domestic abuse don’t seek help. It’s a difficult thing to admit to.

Incidents of domestic violence have increased in the last decade and financial pressures on families certainly haven’t helped. The trigger points for domestic abuse incidents are July and December. Summer holidays and Christmas. It now accounts for between 16 and 25% of all recorded violent crime. Across the country an average of one call a minute is taken by Police control centres reporting domestic violence. One in four women and one in six men (let’s not forget that they can be victims of Domestic Abuse as well) will experience domestic abuse in their life time and on average two women a week are killed by current and ex-partners.
Then there’s the public cost; in social housing, mental health support, criminal justice costs, refuges and housing, not to mention an estimated £1.8bn in lost economic output. Recent figures put the cost to the economy of domestic violence at £5.5bn a year. So domestic violence affects us all.

Know the signs, speak out, support a friend, save a life. And wear a white ribbon.



National Domestic Abuse Helpline 0808 2000247 (24 hour freephone)
National Victim Support 0845 303 900

M.A.L.E (Men’s Advice Line and Enquiries) 0808 801 0327

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Product Review; Universal Audio Dock from mytrendyphone.co.uk

When the nice people at My Trendy Phone asked if I was interested in reviewing one of their products it seemed like a good time to take a look at some of the accessories which were available for The Boy and The Girl’s swanky, shiny new iPhone 5s. I’m not a techy so I can only review this as a consumer but then, that’s all that most of us are too.
We had a look at the website and, once I had steered The Boy away from the high end items – every the optimist! – we settled on some sort of dock system so they could charge their phones and listen to their music without headphones, seeing as the mad Lurcher puppy has a fondness for eating them.
We settled on a Universal Audio dock with lightning charger which is compatible with all iPhones from the 3GS upwards, as well as iPads and iPods and offered a 30pin plug as well so you could charge or play an iPod while you charge your phone.
It arrived promply – the company says delivery within 2-3 days is standard – and, after a few giggles at the badly translated English, we opened it up. It looked small but quite robust but the size actually belies the quality of the sound, which we all thought was pretty good. It has a Bluetooth function which both children enjoyed using. It means you can play your music through it remotely. You can also sync your iPhone and the intelligent control charging means your Apple product is protected.
We have now used it for over a month with no problems. It works well, charges efficiently and the sound quality is good for such a small piece of kit.  I do, however, wonder if there is a slight design fault in that the lightning plug is set in a very shallow seat which means that there is little support for whatever you are charging and the actual plug is taking the bulk of the weight. The first one that we were sent broke within a few days, with the plug snapping off completely. However, all products come with a 2 year warranty so that shouldn’t put you off.
All in all, I’d give this product 4 well deserved stars.  Mytrendyphone.co.uk offers telephone support and chat from 7am to 9pm and if you join their Club Trendy, you get an automatic 7% discount on any product. They have a wide selection of iPhone  accessories, including chargers and cases but it doesn’t stop there. All phone brands are well served as mytrendyphone.co.uk offers a wide choice of gizmos and accessories for all different makes and models as well as iPads and tablets.




Friday, July 26, 2013

Ten things I want my daughter to know...



1.  You are NOT fat

You are just a shade short of 5'8 and a size 8. That is not fat. Not in my book, not in anyone's book. Our society has become obsessed with body image.  I spent my teens thinking I was fat too. When I look at photos of myself, I see that I wasn't. You'll just make yourself miserable. Not only are you not fat but you have inherited your grandmother's hourglass figure and great legs. Women the world over would kill for that!


2.  Be you

Never be afraid to be who you are, whoever that may be. You don't have to conform to any stereotype or rigid societal idea of what you should be. Embrace your individuality.


3.  Don't change

You have an incredible sense of justice. I don't think I have ever met anyone who is so non-judgemental, who accepts everyone for who they are and will be an advocate for other people's right to be themselves. You aren't afraid to stand up for them either. You should be a human rights lawyer or an advocate for people who can't defend themselves. Their opponents wouldn't stand a chance.


4.  Keep that sense of social justice going!

Yes, I know I would have rather enjoyed my tea in the quiet of the garden the other day when you wanted to talk to me about the iniquities of the Texas Abortion Bill but you know what? I was so impressed with your knowledge of the argument, the process, the different points of view and although we didn't agree, you have every right to your viewpoint and your argued it well and with a degree of intelligence that is rare in a 15 year old. I would imagine that there weren't many other 15 year olds in the UK who even knew it was being debated and although it was passed, it doesn't mean the battle is over. There will be more battles in the future and you should take them on!


5.  So you're not one of the 'popular' girls

So what? I know it doesn't bother you and it certainly doesn't bother me. Having seen some of them I'm glad you're not.  Anyway, your brother is one of the coolest kids in the school so you can just bathe in his reflected glory. One day they'll stop saying 'Oh, you're The Boy's sister' and they'll know your name!


6.  Talk to people

Talking about what bothers you is NOT a sign of weakness. It's a sign of someone who is emotionally intelligent. The old saying about a problem shared being a problem halved is true. It doesn't make you a burden.


7.  Not all men are bastards

Don't let recent events shape your future. Just became the man with whom you have had the longest relationship has turned out to be not who we thought he was, don't be put off. Sometimes we don't understand why people do what they do but in the end it's them that lose out. Don't ever let it be you.


8.  You ARE brave

You really are. Brave enough to take on what life is throwing at you and stand tall and strong. We put you into school in France with little more French than 'the sky is blue' and you met the challenge head on. Three weeks after you started, you went away for a 5 days school trip with a bunch of kids you didn't know and who you could barely communicate with. How brave is that? And your first singing solo. You stood up in front of 200 people and sang a beautiful love song that ironically reflected what was going on in your life. No-one had a clue that only 10 minutes before you had been crying hysterically in the toilets because you couldn't do it. You did it and you were amazing. Everybody told you so and they meant it. I know the person you most wanted to be there wasn't but the rest of us were and you stunned us with your bravery.  Remember that when you think you aren't brave enough.


9.  And you are clever!

Forecast 11 As and already an A level at A grade at 14? Believe in yourself!


10.  Don't be too capable

You come from a long line of strong women but don't let yourself be too capable, or at least don't let your future partner know how capable you are. You deserve to be cared for and nurtured as much as you will care for and nurture others. Let other people take responsibility for their own crap, you don't need to.







Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Age is just a number...

I was sitting in the doctor's surgery today when I had one of those awkward moments. I got chatting to the woman next to me, who I estimated to be a few years older than me, so when she said she was 39, I laughed and said yes, I was only in my early 20s too. 'No really,' she said, 'I'm 39.'  There was an embarrassed silence.

I think I look pretty good for my age. Most people assume I am a good ten years younger. The Boy's 'Not A Girlfriend' guessed my age at late 30s but then she's at that stage where there not much difference between 30 and 130.  She did go up hugely in my estimation though.

When I got home I was looking through the online news on my phone and came across some new research that claims to have found the top 50 signs that you are getting older so I thought I would see how I stacked up against them, so here goes:

1. Feeling stiff. Hmm, well I can't quite do the splits any more and the sudden urges I have to do cartwheels have to be kept in check

2.  Groaning when you bend down. Well, I have been occasionally guilty of that one

3.  Saying 'In my day'. Oh dear, guilty as charged M'lud.  I say it so often that my children say 'If you say 'in my day' once more I'll....(insert torment of choice)'

4.  Losing my hair. Is that the same as tearing your hair out? I do a lot of that.

5.  You don't know any songs from the Top 10.  Well I know all the words to 'Get Lucky' by Daft Punk, probably the only decent thing to come out of France in years, I can sing along to 'La La La' by Naughty Boy and I love Robin Thicke's 'Blurred Lines' so no, that definitely doesn't apply.

6. Getting more hairy (nose, ears, eyebrows, etc). A quick check shows now sign of simian-type fur anywhere it shouldn't be so no, not me

7.  Hating noisy pubs. Well, to be honest, I've never liked being in the sort of place where you have to shout to be heard and you spend the evening saying 'yes' to sex in the toilet/class A drugs/buying another round of drinks because you can't hear what anyone is saying.

8. Saying it wasn't like that when I was young. See 3 above

9.  Talking a lot about joints/ailments. Did I tell you about this pain in my back.....?

10. Forgetting people's names. Sorry, who were you again?

11.  Choosing clothes and shoes for comfort rather than fashion. Well, having given my heels a run out twice in the last month, spending an evening feeling like I've put my feet in a cheese grater, I can safely say that I have chosen fashion over comfort

12.  Thinking policement/teachers/doctors look really young.  Well I quite enjoy some of the eye candy at the school the Boy and the Girl attend

13.  Falling asleep in front of the TV. See my last blogpost

14.  Needing an afternoon nap. Chance would be a fine thing!

15.  Finding you have no idea what young people are talking about. Well, as I share my life with two young people I think I am quite well versed in what they are talking about

16.  Struggling to use technology.   Well I did have to get The Girl to show me how to resize my Facebook photos

17.  Losing touch with every day technology and tablets.  Nope, quite at home on an iPad

18.  When you start complaining about more and more things.  Did I tell you about the appalling service I got at....

19.  Wearing your glasses around your neck.  To be honest, if I don't wear them on my nose I walk into walls so no, this isn't me either

20 .  Not remembering the name of any modern bands.  See 6 above

21.  You avoid lifting heavy things due to back concerns.  Well who wants to spend a fortnight necking Naproxen and Valium?

22.  Complaining about the rubbish on television these days. After my anti-BBC rant the other day I think I'd have to say yes

23.  Misplacing your glasses/bag/keys. Does driving 22 miles to work and leaving your laptop at home count?

24.  You move from Radio One to Radio Two. What and leave Grimmie behind? Not a chance

25.  You start driving slowly.  I have a very nippy Golf TDi, what would be the point?

26.  Preferring a night in with a board game than a night on the town. A bored game, more like!

27.  Spending money on the home/furniture rather than a night out. Well, the village pub is closed at the moment

28.  You talk to colleagues so young they can't remember what an Opal Fruit is. Ha ha! I'm the youngest in my team!

29.  Taking slippers to a friends' house.  I somehow think they'd prefer a bottle of wine

30.  Listening to the Archers. The only Archer I listen to is my friend Lou

31.  Falling asleep after one glass of wine.  It probably would put me to sleep but mainly because I don't actually drink any more and haven't since about 1995.

32.  Never going out without your coat. When I go out without my knickers I'll start to worry!

33.  Getting bed socks for Christmas and being genuinely grateful. Do welly socks count?

34.  When you can't lose six pounds in two day any more. Hmm, not sure I could ever do that.
35.  Gasping for a cup of tea.  Well how is that a sign of ageing? I'm British for goodness sake. A nice cup of tea is the panacaea for all ills. I drink many gallons of tea each year in order to keep the good tea farmers of Yorkshire in business

36.  Taking a flask of tea or coffee on a day out.  As my drink of choice is a one shot skinny latte, then no.

37.  Joining the WI. Err, yes, I have actually

38.  Taking a keen interest in the garden. Well I'm mainly picking up dog poo. Does that count?

39.  Spending more money on face creams/anti-ageing products. And thinking about laser eye surgery and maybe reading adverts for non-surgical facelifts?

40.  Taking a keen interest in Antiques Roadshow.  Well I wouldn't want to miss discovering that my door stop is a priceless treasure

41.  Taking a keen interest in dressing for the weather.  As someone who recently went to work in open-toed shoes and a summer top when everyone else was wearing thermal socks and jumpers, maybe not

42.  Putting everyday items in the wrong place. There's NOTHING wrong with putting the cat in the dishwasher

43.  Obsessive gardening or bird feeding. That would just be encouraging kitty snacks for the murderous cats

44.  Really enjoying puzzled and crosswords. What is 21 down?

45.  Always driving in the slow lane or under 70 in the middle lane. I think you'll find the latter is a criminal offence now and I'm far more likely to be the one yelling at the idiot hogging the middle lane.

46.  Consider going on a 'no children' cruise for a holiday. I would never, ever consider going on a cruise for a holiday anyway, children or no children

47.  Your ears are getting bigger. They are NOT!

48.  Joining the National Trust. What? At their prices?

49.  Drinking sherry.  See 31 above

50.  Feeling you have the right to tell people exactly what you are thinking even it it isn't polite. Well maybe not polite but usually in their best interest!

So, there you have it. Are you old? Me? Like I said to the lady in the doctors. I'm only 21 really!

What the f**k is this? Do I look like I have nasal hair?


Friday, June 14, 2013

Life without the Beeb? Yes please!

Life without the BBC would be 'unimaginable' according to John Humphreys on the day that the euros in the meter finally ran out for the Greek state broadcaster. Really?  I don't imagine it, I more or less live it.

I used to work for the BBC, firstly in one of the newsrooms, then for the commissioner of independent drama. I lasted about a year before I ran screaming for the door, vowing never to return.  Even in those days, tokenism was the name of the game. It was all about having the right quota of gays, disabled, muslims, whatever was the minority du jour was. As a white, middle class heterosexual woman I was viewed as slightly alien; one who had accidentally slipped in under the equality radar.

On my first day, I spent so long with the Health and Safety people making sure my chair was the right height, my desk at the right level, footrest in the right place, screen the right distance that I wondered when I would get any work done. And then when I did, I discovered that my computer was programmed to shut down every half an hour to make sure I didn't get repetitive strain injury. Fat chance!  At the time, the Beeb was getting rid of a lot of its staff and re-employing them on freelance contracts.  The 'redundancy' pay they were giving to people who were walking out of the door one day as employees and walking back in the next, to the same job at the same desk, as a freelancer would make your eyes water. And at 4pm everybody, and I mean everybody, stopped to watch Countdown. Having come from a working in the private sector, where just about every one of my colleagues would most likely have been let go years before, I was shocked at the waste of time and money, taxpayers money. There was this certain arrogance that pervaded and still does pervade the BBC. But Television Centre at least had a certain charm about it.

Then someone had the bright idea of moving it, lock, stock and tax-payer funded barrel, up to Salford and the concept of Media City was born. The good people of Manchester rubbed their hands in glee at the thought of all the employment it would bring to an area that suffered over 400 incidences of crime each month. A vast, sprawling monolith was built that most people, according to my inside information, hate and that they had to literally bribe staff with hefty, tax-payer funded relocation packages. Some went, others took the equally hefty redundancy packages and yes, we paid for those too.

The idea behind the move was because the BBC wanted to it's views to be more representative of the country and less 'London-centric'. Apparently not enough people in the Northwest watched the BBC, apart from Corrie of course. And, whoop, whoop, they've grown their audience share and all for a lifetime cost of well over a billion pounds of taxpayers money. The 38% of staff they relocated cost us a cool £24 million in relocation packages and the redundancy packages for the 500 odd staff who opted not to move was another £26.2 million. This, apparently, represents value for money.

And as for investment in the local economy? Well apparently they only employed 34 'locals' which will make a huge difference to an area that has double the national average of unemployment.  The rest came from London. Lucky old Manchester.

But for me, the real change has been the empty sofas, the 'and we are joined from our London studio by..' because, let's be honest, no captain of industry or opinion maker has the time to schlep all the way up to Manchester in their busy day to spend a few minutes sitting on the red sofa with a couple of presenters who have their bags packed ready to head back down to the South the nanosecond that the director says, 'it's a wrap'. Anyone can get on the sofa at the Beeb these days, and they do.  It matters not a jot if they have anything even vaguely interesting to say.

The move has given us a chance to see what the average person on the street in the North West has to say. So far, I'm sorry folks, but it's been very little. The vox pops have been cringy and the BBC now resembles a regional news outfit rather than the flagship of British broadcasting. So I've turned it off. I don't watch BBC Breakfast any more. I never watched Corrie anyway so I certainly don't miss that. (Ed. and of course it's not even on the BBC anyway!)

And the idea of a northern production base doesn't seem to be working either because the truth of the matter is that the bulk of the film/tv talent is based in the South. Those that rushed with indecent haste up to Manchester to ride the tide of the new productions from the BBC are sitting at home, twiddling their thumbs and wondering if they will ever work again while new studios are opening up in Hampshire and Bristol, Pinewood is applying to extend and Shepperton is booked for years to come.

I'm all for the BBC reflecting national opinion but in my humble one it could have been achieved in other ways than by  wasting  spending over a billion pounds of tax payers money. But the BBC is smug and arrogant and still thinks it is the major force in world news that it was in earlier decades. Its staff are overpaid, underworked and now up there where they will air kiss each other into obscurity.

So, Mr Humphreys. A world without the BBC? Yes please - and it may come sooner than you think.

Look at all the Londoners!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Women Inspring Women Awards, Dorset, Wiltshire and Hampshire 2013

Back at the beginning of May I wrote that I had been nominated, then shortlisted in the Women Inspiring Woman Awards as a Rising Star/Woman to Watch. Not quite the Oscars, as I said at the time, but an honour to be shortlisted out of the hundreds of nominations the organisers had received. Thank you to the person who nominated me. You know who you are.

One of my closest friends, offered to accompany me and as it was to be an evening almost entirely female, it seemed like the ideal time to break a 15 year embargo on ridiculously high heels. I dragged my flattie clad feet around Salisbury looking for something that was a) comfortable - or at least relatively, b) likely to cause only minor injury if I fell off them and c) wouldn't cost the GDP of a small African nation.

After trying on what seemed like hundreds (but was probably only five or six) I settled on a pair of plain black patent ones with stupidly high heels. They were the only ones which didn't make me feel like I had put my feet in a cheese grater. No wonder Posh Spice never smiles. Her feet must be killing her! Shoes bought, the next vital part of the outfit was the gel insoles (you thought I was going to say the dress didn't you?). Why do M&S put the gel insoles with the socks rather than the shoes. I mean, you put them in your shoes, not your socks. That's one of those question that academics will ponder for years to come.

Back home I decided that a sensible women would at least try and break the shoes in. No-one in their right mind, especially one who's footwear of choice is a pair of red patent Doc Martens or crocs, would go out for an evening in a pair of unworn stilettos. The first problem was getting the gel insoles in. Who designs these things? They certainly aren't mean to go in shoes. They are so sticky that it's virtually impossible to get them inside the shoes without getting them stuck to the top of the shoes or halfway down. Still with a bit of perseverance, I managed to get them in roughly the right place. The shoes were surprisingly comfortable but, as I later found, totally unsuitable for hoovering the stairs. I tottered round the house, trying different walking styles, most of which made me look as if I had a hedgehog wedged somewhere unpleasant. In the end, I found that a sort of cross between a sashay and a swagger seemed fairly stable. Whether it made me look stable is open to question.

We arrived, suited and booted, or dressed and shod, at the hotel and I sashayed/swaggered/wobbled my way in, carefully negotiating the uneven flagstones at the entrance. A gaggle of glamorous women were laughing and giggling outside so there was no way I wanted to fall flat on my bum in front of them.

Inside, it wasn't hard to find the party. The sound of hundreds of female voices - and a few lone males who had braved the evening with their partners - drew us to the reception and a glass of something bubbly for my friend and an apple juice for me. Sometimes this no drinking thing is a drag!

 Once the welcome drinks were over we moved on to the restaurant and found ourselves on the table plans. I knew almost no-one there so I was really looking forward to meeting our dinner partners. I wasn't disappointed.  Our table was  shared with some incredible women who are pushing the boundaries in business, have set up charities, work as advocates for those in need or have bought new life to rural communities. Sitting next to us was the lovely Rachel from Ewetree Bakery who very self-deprecatingly told us she had no idea why she was there as all she did was make cakes. These are not any old cakes but award winning cakes. Not only that, Rachel set up The Teffont Bakery in her little village of Teffont Magna and every Saturday, she sells cakes and pastries and serves tea and coffee (free refills) giving a vital opportunity for the older people in her village, particularly those who live alone, to meet up and enjoy the company of others. I can't stress how important this is in rural communities where isolation is all too common, particularly for older people. Since it's inception, it has grown into a little farmers market with handmade chocolates, local produce, plant and flowers.

My friend and I dropped in to see Rachel the next day and I can absolutely attest to the superbness of her brownies. We spent a lovely hour stuffing our faces with croissants and cakes - just quality control you understand - and drinking endless coffee as we watched the world of Teffont Magna go by. It was buzzy and we could absolutely see the value Rachel is bringing to her local community. I left with lots of ideas for something similar in our village.

But back to the evening... it started off with a rousing chorus of  'Man, I Feel Like A Woman' - apparently a bit of singsong is something of a tradition at the meetings of Damsels in Success, who were co-hosting the evening with Ladies Who Love...Events. Lulu, from Damsels and Catherine, from Ladies Who Love were our hosts and led the singing with great gusto. Then it was on to the awards. The categories were Woman's Role Model/Advocate, Woman in the Community, Woman in Business, Rising Star/Woman to Watch (my category), Creative Woman and Inspirational Woman.

I'm not going to go through all the nominees and winners, if you are interested you can read their stories on the Women Inspiring Women website suffice to say, I was completely in awe of the winners, all of whom were worthy. Between them they had pretty much saved the world and I was honoured to have spent time in their company.

Dinner was delicious and the conversation sparkled around the table until the last course was finished and beyond.  Afterwards, we had photos taken with our fellow nominees - sadly I looked like I was sucking a particularly sour lemon so I didn't bother to buy a copy. My friend and I  had every intention of joining in the dancing when the tables were moved but in the end, we crashed out in the overstuffed sofas in the bar, slipped our feet out of our heels and just chatted for hours.

It was a truly lovely evening. New friendships were forged, new networking opportunities made and the awesome power of the female of the species was thoroughly in evidence.  I was a wonderful night. Thank you, dear friend, for making it possible. You know who you are. If you lived round here I'd nominate you for the 2014 awards in a heartbeat.


Friday, May 10, 2013

Review: Ultrathin Clear iPhone5 case from The Snugg

The nice people at The Snugg (www.thesnugg.com or .co.uk depending on where you are) asked me to review an iPhone 5 case for them. Pretty ideal as The Girl had just got a new iPhone 5. They do a good range of products from a premium leather pouch to a more basic clear plastic one as well as iPad and Kindle cases, covers for all manner of tablets and a rather natty Ipod clip case.

The cover they sent me was the Ultrathin Clear iPhone 5 case. It seemed fairly robust and clicked into place on the phone easily. The fit was good and nothing was obscured as is often the case. Unfortunately, The Girl dropped it on the kitchen floor and while it did a great job of protecting the phone, which does apparently break very easily, the case itself cracked so maybe not quite as robust as I thought. The Snugg does offer a lifetime guarantee on it's products which you can get by registering your purchase on their website so had this not been a review product, I could have returned it for a no quibbles replacement.

A good basic case but probably worth spending a bit more to get one that is more durable. If you are into all that techy stuff, you can follow their blog here




Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Not quite The Oscars but...

I've been nominated for an award, well, more than nominated, short-listed out of hundreds of nominees for a Women Inspiring Women Award. The awards are for the most inspirational and aspiring women in Wiltshire, Dorset and Hampshire and apparently I'm one of them. Ha! Shows how well they know me!

My nomination is in the Women to Watch/Rising Star category and although I'm definitely not planning my acceptance speech as I'm up against some formidable opposition, it would be nice to at least make a decent showing in the votes. And that's where you, dear reader, come in.

If you have the time and the inclination, I'd be dead chuffed if you'd vote for me. This year, so far has been pretty crap and so this has been a really lovely surprise and  it would be nice to think that I was at least in with a chance...don't make me beg!

So, here's the link. Registration is free, you won't get spammed and if you are one of my local readers, check out the sponsors. I've come across some great groups through it.

http://womeninspiringwomenawards.co.uk/melaniejones.html

Thank you!


Look what happened when my toast popped
out of the toaster. It's a sign, right?


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

What the folk was all that...?

My regular, long-suffering readers will know of my recent conversion to the fabulous world of the ukulele so it was with great excitement and anticipation that I said 'yes' to my first gig, you know playing in front of real people who had even paid money for the privilege. It was at a local Folk Festival on a cold rainy night and my partners in crime were not keen to go but I used my powers of persuasion and a bit of the old JuJu on them until they relented. To be honest, it was only the promise of free food and soft drinks that was calling me. With no bar, the others were not so fussed.

Now I wasn't expecting Glastonbury, in fact, I don't know what I was expecting. What I wasn't prepared for was to find myself in the middle of what seemed like an episode of The Vicar of Dibley.

We set off from home, me, my two ukulele Homegirls, Hannah and Helen, Hannah's niece, Sarah, fresh from the heady world of advertising in London, and a bag full of beer to get through the evening.

Things started to go wrong when we got there, a 40 minute drive from home, and opened the boot.

'Where's my uke?' asked Hannah.

We did that rummaging around in an empty boot thing, even though there was no way her concert sized ukulele in its flash green crocodile skin case could be hidden under my wellies.

'It's not here,' I said, stating the obvious. Instead of the flash green crocodile case, there was a green carrier bag full of beer.

'I must of thought 'green' and just assumed I had my uke,' said Hannah. At least we know where her priorities lie!

So, there we were, all ready for the gig but minus a uke. Having ascertained that no-one had a spare, we called in the cavalry, in the shape of Hannah's husband, who agreed to bring her uke over, risking, as it turned out, maybe not life but definitely limb.

The festival was in hall of a pretty little village. We walked in, expecting a crowd of people rocking out to some good ole folk sounds. What we found was just good ole folk.. average age 103 and a half, plenty of hearing aids in sight, and all sitting down at tables where they had brought their own nibbles. They were the sort of people that had nibbles. On the stage were two middle aged women and a man playing a guitar who couldn't pronounce his Rs (the man, not the guitar!). They were clearly not professionals. My heart sank. Had we really dragged ourselves all this way in the rain for this? Sarah stood, pressed against the door, looking ready to bolt at any minute, a look of mute shock on her face. I think I can safely say she had never experienced anything like this.

We made our way over to our band mates, squashed in the corner with the remnants of a tray of sandwiches. That was obviously the 'free food' and all that was left was a curled up tuna sandwich. I have strong feelings about tuna sandwiches, none of which are good. We sat politely listening to the people on stage. I developed a terrible fit of the giggles, while Hannah gave me the evil eye and mouthed 'this is all your fault.' At first I thought it was just me but gradually I realised that the rest of the group were equally unimpressed with both the set up and the quality of the entertainment.

After a rousing rendition of 'All Around My Hat', a song that makes me want to drink bleach, complete with green willow around said hats, they left the stage, much to our relief.  I mimed slashing my wrists to Hannah. Sarah was still pressed up against the door, wondering if she had stumbled into some sort of parallel universe while Helen busied herself with ensuring that everyone had sufficient beer to drown their sorrows. I heartily wished that I wasn't teetotal.

Next up was a man with 'a bit of a bad chest'. His opening song was unaccompanied (although he was holding a guitar). It was about the Somerset Coal Canal. I pretended to hang myself with my scarf while Hannah mouthed 'I'll never forgive you.'

We decided to try and liven the place up a bit but the he was followed Hinge and Bracket on violin (slightly out of tune) and accordion. They played a medley of songs from around the UK, missing out Wales because they won the Six Nations.Well don't ask me, that's just what they said. I didn't really have them down as rugby fans to be honest. I had hoped, after 5 years living in France, never to hear another accordion again.  I suggested we left and went to the pub.

At this point, Hannah's husband limped in, clothes muddied, but her uke safe in his hands. Now we all love Steve, but really, how does someone manage to shut their shoelaces in their front door then tumble down the front steps, landing in an undignified heap, only to then get clouted on the head by a very hard ukulele case? Early claims of a broken ankle mercifully proved false.

Things looked up slightly (and for me briefly) with the arrival on stage of a band called Folklaw. After one song, I thought 'Against the Law' might be a better name.

They consisted of two ridiculously tall men, one with a ponytail playing a union jack fiddle, the other, a rather natty looking guitar, which I'm hoping, bearing in mind their half-hearted set of protest songs, came from a sustainable source. They apparently sing all over Europe and the US, although I suspect it's actually just on street corners with a hat in front of them.

The Ponytailed One was the lead singer. He sang through his teeth in a manner slightly reminiscent of Prince Charles on acid. I felt the urge to punch him.  The guitarist had delusions of Jimmy Hendrix. I'm sorry, but you just can't rock out to folk songs and any attempt to do so just makes you look silly. Almost as silly as the song about selling off the forests with a very embarrassing air punch to a cry of 'hey, hey.' I was sitting on my hands at this stage and wondering if there was any chance of a hit of a Class A drug. When the UnPonytailed One appeared with a Bodhran that he clearly couldn't play, I started making my scarf into a noose. I will be honest and say that my homegirls loved them (but then they had been drinking) and we did try to get into the spirit of things but the spirit of things in that part of the world seemed to be listening politely and quietly with a bit of a two finger patter at the end.  Our neighbouring tables seemed unimpressed with our vocal harmonies. Have you ever been eye-balled by a pensioner with a hearing aid? It's freaky!

We were due to close the show at around 11pm. though I'm fairly sure most of the assembled audience would have nodded off long before then, and I was seriously worried about what torture the second half  would bring, but in an act of mercy, which left me thanking God in all his various incarnations, they moved us to the beginning of the second half as someone was ill.

We don't really do many folk numbers to be honest. The joy of playing the ukulele is that you can be ironic. We play The Undertones, Abba, The Zutons, people like that, so our set was all about energy rather than shipping canals.  I think we woke them up. We opened with Sit Down by James, which in fact turned out to be a quite appropriate as when several members of the audience got up to show their appreciation, they were told to sit down and be quiet, then followed with a dash of Mamma Mia,  a soupcon of Bonnie Tyler (It's a Heartache) complete with cheesy narration from George, a zhuzh of  Teenage Kicks and a liberal dollop of Elbow's One Day Like This. Holy Cow! Desert was a medley of Rudy by The Specials mashed up with Blondie's The Tide is High. People were whooping and hollering - in the brief moment before being eyeballed by a whole series of pensioners.

It was huge fun but with closing time at the pub fast approaching, we decided to make a dash for it, rather than re-enter DibleyWorld with its nibbles and hearing aids.  The rest of the band had come by minibus and had to sit it out, poor buggers!

No, Folklaw...just no!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

I Can't Get No Satisfaction...

Sorry for the lengthy gap between posts. Unfortunately life threw me some curved balls which temporarily crushed my creative spirit. Nothing I'm going in to here. I'm not one for airing my laundry, dirty or otherwise, in public. But I'm back now.

The Boy has just paid (for just paid, read I have just paid) for his ticket for Glastonbury, the lucky bugger. I so want to go. The line up is awesome, with some of my favourite bands; The Arctic Monkeys, Mumford & Sons, Elvis Costello (last saw him in the Assembly Hall in Tunbridge Wells when dinosaurs walked the earth), Rufus Wainright, The Lumineers, Two Door Cinema Club, Newton Faulkner, Penguin Café, Kenny Rogers (joke!), the list goes one and on. For a brief moment, I was nearly in the line up. Yes, really. Our ukulele club very nearly had a place on a stage at the back between the toilets and the ice cream van which is reserved for local bands. Unfortunately, when push came to shove, Mr Eavis wasn't prepared to provide the 30 day tickets that we would have needed. Swines! As if they don't make enough money out of the £205 ticket price. That's £205 plus a booking fee and a transaction fee which stick another £16 on top of it. If you were to break down the cost of seeing all the bands individually, it represents good value for money, but blimey, it's still an awful lot.

This morning, the papers are full of righteous indignation over the cost of tickets to see The Rolling Stones in Hyde Park. People paid up to £300 for tickets that gave them access to a reserved area. Unfortunately, what the organisers forgot to mention was that people who bought the cheapest tickets, and cheapest is £95,  more than some people spend on feeding a family of four for a week, would also have access to the same area. Bit of a rip off.  I wouldn't be bothering to waste my time on them, even if I did have a ticket. 95 quid to stand in a publicly owned park and watch a bunch of old codgers who don't even pay tax in the UK. They should be doing the concert for free to thank all the poor fans they have shafted in recent years and the country that gave them fame and fortune but to which they contribute nothing.  Apparently they often show up in bars in the US and do impromptu jams. Clearly they don't think their British fans are worth it.
The Stones, incidentally, are headlining Glasto this year. Quite an achievement for a bunch of 70 year old men.

£300 to see this bunch of pensioners? You're having a larf!

I saw them over 20 years ago on their Voodoo Lounge tour. We had free tickets as a friend was working as transport manager for the tour.  All I can say is thank god they were free. Then in their 50s, the quality of their vocals was questionable and the dad-dancing was just embarrassing.  We had passes to the aftershow party as well but they had all gone home for a restorative mug of cocoa and a lie down. Anyone who saw Sir Macca wail and trill through the Queen's Jubilee concert and the Olympic ceremony knows that at some stage in your life the voice goes. Sir Mick has never been a great vocalist but even 20 years ago, he was rubbish. So more fool these idiots who have parted with so much money to see a bunch of incontinent geriatrics warble and strut around a stage. I'd rather have a nice cup of tea myself.

Bleugh! Pretty much how I feel
about the tax-avoiding Creaking Drones

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Girl's Guide to Rugby

Yes, it's that time of year again. No, not The Husband's birthday (which is today by the way), it's the start of the Six Nations. Long-time readers of my blog will know that I love rugby, well England rugby really. I went to the very first rugby world cup in Australia, got inadvertently tackled by an All Black in Bahrain - and I didn't spill my beer - and have sat on Murray Mexted's shoulders and sung 'Hi Ho Silver Lining'. I forget why now. My first romantic weekend away with The Husband (then just The Boyfriend) coincided with the Rugby World Cup and I only agreed to go on the proviso that I we found somewhere to watch the matches which is how we ended up sitting in a grotty pub in Norfolk with a man and a goat in a neckerchief. I kid you not (if you'll excuse the pun!)

So that all you lovely people can share in my love of the Truly Beautiful Game, here is my Girl's Guide to Rugby which gives you all you need to enjoy the Six Nations.

The Game:

Firstly there are two types of rugby. Rugby League is generally played by rugged northerners who think that Rugby Union is only played by effete ex-public schoolboys and have never really forgiven Jason Robinson for giving up League to play Union for England. I mean, it's not what tough young blokes from Leeds do is it? Rugby League teams only have 13 players, probably because they've all gone South to play proper rugby. Rugby Union, or proper rugby as I like to call it,  is played by two teams of 15 brawny men with well muscled thighs and six packs that would make a lesser man weep.  They play with a funny shaped ball, which leads to countless double entendres, and which neither rolls or bounces straight. If you think it's going left you can almost guarantee it will go right. Mind you, predictability of bounce doesn't seem to help England's footballers that much.

The aim of the game is to get the ball over your try line or, if you don't have the ball, stop the other team getting it across theirs. This can be done either by fair means or foul depending on whether the referee is looking. The try line is the line underneath the funny H-shaped sticks at each end of the field. But, just to make it a bit more interesting, you can't throw the ball forward. Yes, I know, it makes no sense. You are trying to get the ball up the field but you have to throw it backwards. If you do throw it forward, that's a forward pass (obviously) and you will be penalised, unless you are French of course, which might mean you have to have a scrum. That's a sort of rugby 'group hug' which is the best place to spot a well-muscled thigh, or occasionally, as they tend to hang on to each other's shorts, a flash of firm buttock. Scrums tend to be very popular with the ladies. Just to make things more interesting though, you can kick the ball up the field.


You can stop your opponent getting the ball over the try line by tackling him. Tackling takes many different forms but all of them are painful. Rugby, like love, hurts. You can't tackle people above the shoulder or pick them up and dump them headfirst on the ground. The referee tends not to like that and will generally rummage around in his pocket and pull out a piece of red cardboard. This means that you have to go back to the dressing room and can't play in the match anymore. You will also be a symbol of loathing to rugby pundits the world over who will denounce this unacceptable play which just 'isn't rugby'.

When you get the ball over the try line, most of the opposition, and a few of your own team will jump on you, making a sort of human Jenga. That will hurt too. If the try is awarded, then the glory boy can come on and try and kick the ball through the sticks which will give you extra points. The glory boy is often easily identifiable as the one with hardly any mud on his shirt. Whether or not the glory boy manages to get the ball through the sticks, there will be comparisons with The God Jonny Wilkinson, either in the form of 'Jonny would have got that' or 'well,yes, that was good, but Jonny was better.'

Scoring:  You score 5 points for a try and then if you kick the ball over the sticks you get another 2 points for a conversion. Converting what to what has never been entirely clear. You can also get 3 points for a drop goal, which is when you pick up the ball mid-match and try and kick it through the sticks. Generally they miss and it is almost impossible to mention a drop goal without mentioning Rob Andrew and The God Jonny Wilkinson in the same breath. Those were two of the finest drop goals in England Rugby history.

Terminology:

Try - that's when you get the ball over that line I was talking about. No-one really knows why it is called a try when you have actually succeeded.

Conversion - see scoring above
 .
Penalty - the best way to score points without doing anything. Wind up the opposition so they get really mad and break lots of rules

Drop kick - Aahh, Jonny... sorry, a drop kick can be taken at any point in the game but the ball must touch the ground first before you kick it.

Knock on - this is when a player fumbles the ball then drops it and knocks it forward. Well you try hanging on to a muddy, greasy egg shaped ball!

Rucks and Mauls - these generally resemble playground scraps in inner city comprehensives or kick out time at a Cardiff nightclub.  In a ruck, the ball is on the ground, usually under a pile of bodies, which means that you can't touch it with your hands. You have to 'ruck' it out with your feet. And no, I don't know why. That's just the rules. In a maul, the ball is off the ground and the players have to stay on their feet. A rolling maul is when the players try to push the ball up the field, with players breaking off and rejoining at the back. It's a bit like a manic version of The Locomotion.  You can get a right telling off for collapsing a maul. Others players can join in the bundle but only from the back. If they join from the side the ref will blow his whistle and give the other team a penalty. However, in the thick of it, anything goes. It's not unusual for eyes to be gouged or body parts bitten off in a ruck or a maul

The scrum - Scrums involve eight players from each team in a 3-4-1 formation. In the front row you have a hooker.... no, no! Not that sort of hooker. The hooker is the player who is responsible for  hooking the ball out with his foot. And if his knee happens to make contact with the opposing hooker, accidentally  of course, so much the better. He is supported by two props, who, well prop him up really. behind him are a bunch of big, heavy blokes whose job it is to push.  They all kneel down and then the second row of the scrum put their hands through the legs of the front row and hang on to their todger. The last row then does the same to the second row. This is possibly what made it so popular in public schools, that and the communal baths after the match. The ref will shout instructions for the team to engage in the scrum. The instructions change with alarming regularity, as do the rules of the scrum but whatever happens, the props will generally use this as an opportunity to give their opposition numbers a playful punch or dead arm.  On the shout of Set, they will hurl themselves together like rutting stags with lots of grunting.  The scrum half will feed the ball into the hooker who will try and hook the ball through his legs and out of the back of the scrum to their team mates. A scrum is no place for the faint-hearted or those who are easily provoked. There is often a lot of conversation in the scrums, often along the lines of 'I'd like to give your wife/girlfriend/mother/dog one'.  At the end of some tournaments, the front rows often comment wryly that their opposite number talked to them more during the scrums than their wives had in the previous ten years.

The Players:

The team is split into two halves. The forwards and the backs.

The backs, all eight of them,  are the pretty boys of the team, often fleet of foot and able to get through an entire game without getting a hair out of place. They generally don't have noses or ears resembling a box full of organic vegetables. They are often very fast. South Africa's Brian Habana very nearly outran a cheetah and probably would have if they'd made the cheetah carry a rugby ball too. Their job is to kick and run the ball up the field while preventing the opposing backs from doing the same.

The forwards are the engine room of the team and like most engine rooms are not that attractive to look at and tend to smell a bit.  They will have flat noses and ears that stick out at alarming angles with all manner of lumps and bumps on them. They generally have thighs like tree trunks and are definitely more attractive from behind than from the front. Their job is to ruck, maul, scrummage push and shove and win the ball for the backs. Forwards have occasionally been known to score tries but they often look like hippopotamuses lumbering across the plains. They are man mountains, most towering well over 6 feet. Simon Shaw was 6' 8, a mere minnow compared to Martin Bayfield's 6'10 and Scotland's Richard Metcalfe, who stood at 7' tall.

The Teams

England. They generally wear white and have a nice little rose on their kit.

Italy - they always come last.

The rest... Gah! Who cares!

And just to finish up here's a totally gratuitous photo of naked rugby players








Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Taxing Affair

'Tax shouldn't be taxing,' crowed HMRC when they launched their new Self-Assessment Scheme.It's so simple, you won't need an accountant.  Newsflash: It's a nightmare and while you may not need an accountant, you will need a degree in understanding 'revenue-speak' and the patience of a whole heavenly host of saints.

Tomorrow is the deadline for submitting your self-assessment return online. It's a universal truth that somewhere around three o'clock, the HMRC website will crash as everyone scrambles to get them in before midnight in order to avoid the £100 fine.

In the pre-financial crisis days, we had an accountant, even though we apparently didn't need one but in these straitened times, his £2000 fee was a saving we could make by taking HMRC at it's word and doing it ourselves. Whether that £2000 fee was worth my sanity is another matter.

Last year was possibly the worst experience we have had trying to file our return. For those who are fortunate enough not to have to file a return, you have to register with the Government Gateway which generates a random number which is your User ID. It's twelve digits long and impossible to remember so they send you a nice little card with your User ID on so you can keep it for future reference. I've never had the time or inclination to read the small print so I don't actually know if it's an aide-memoire or whether you need to eat it so no-one can steal your ID. That takes around 7 days to arrive. Once you have that you then have to apply for an activation code. That takes another 7 days and once you get it, you can only use it during a gibbous moon, on a day beginning with M, in a month that only has 30 days and, of course, only in a leap year. If you don't use it when specified, it is invalidated and you have to start the same process all over again. Once you've done that you have to register for the services you want to use. No wonder so many people have problems with it. Compare that to any other time when you have to set up a user ID and password. It's all done and dusted within about 10 minutes all online and not a letter through the post in sight.

So I treat our Government Gateway ID in a similar fashion as I would a winning lottery ticket. Last year, I dutifully went to submit our return a week before the deadline and found myself locked out of our account because the password was wrong. I was absolutely convinced that I was using the right password because I had written it down. I phoned the helpdesk. No problem, we can e-mail you your password, they told me. Easy peasy! Except that the e-mail address that they had on file was an old one that we no longer had access to. 'Okay,' says I, 'I'll give you the new one.' 'Ah, says the helpdesk, 'we can only send it to the e-mail address we have registered. 'Why?' 'Because that's the rules.' 'But why? It's not as if anyone is going to want to hack into your tax return and pay your bill for you is it?'

But the Government Gateway remained firmly closed. 'So what do we do?' 'Well, you'll have to register again.' 'But that takes around 14 days. I'll miss the deadline.' 'Oh dear.' 'But what about the £100 fine?' 'You'll have to appeal.' Thanks for nothing.

So I did what anyone faced with the intransigence of HMRC would do. I hung up and phoned in again, hoping to speak to someone more helpful. And I did.  It wasn't easy and bearing in mind that calls to  HMRC are on a premium rate number it wasn't particularly cheap either but I  managed to get a new Government Gateway ID and password over the phone. I wrote it all down faithfully including who I spoke to and the date I spoke to them. The tax return was submitted on time and all was well with the Western world.

So this year, it was with great confidence that I went to knock on the Government Gateway again. It opened up and and positively welcomed me in. I had a warm, fluffy feeling. At least until I tried to do anything. It told me I wasn't registered for any services. How could that be? I have everything written down, it even told me that I had last logged in on 18th January 2012, which was the date I had submitted our last return. I logged out and in again but to no avail. The Husband suggested trying the old ID as we still had it written down. I guessed at the password but after three wrong attempts it locked me out. Bastard!

Time to call HMRC. I spoke to a single-cell organism that was no help at all but did manage to tell me that I needed to speak to the Online Helpdesk. She gave me a number and I thanked her, before realising it was the same number I'd rung her on. An interminable trek through the automated service finally got me to the right people and a nasty case of déja vu.  I seemed to be having the same conversation I had had almost a year earlier. The revenue drone, let's call him Angus (because that was his name) spoke to me as if I was a slightly thick child and informed me I was locked out my account. Au contraire, I told him, the account that is locked is my old one. I am in my account but it says I am not registered for any services. 'That's not your account'. 'Aha! It's got my name on it.' 'Well people can set up lots of accounts if they want to,' he said, as if that answered my question. 'Yes, but why would I? Why would I go through the hell of setting up another account that I couldn't even use?' 'I can e-mail you your password,' he said, reeling off the old e-mail address. Got you! I thought. 'We haven't had that address for nearly two years now, so that proves that you are looking at the wrong account. We updated it to a new one last year, we even set it up while we were on the phone to HMRC.' 'Well that's the only e-mail address I have attached to your account.' 'But the e-mail address on the account I'm looking at is the right one.' 'You're locked out of your account.' 'No, I'm in it.' and so it went. Angus talked to me in ever slower and more deliberate sentences as is I was a recalcitrant child. In the end I gave up and handed the phone to The Husband to finish the call before I was forced to hot-foot it up to HMRC and shove the paper copy of my tax return sideways up his rear end. The Governmeng Gateway remained as firmly shut as the gates of Downing Street when a certain cycling minister tried to go through.

In the end, Angus said he would send us a reminder of the User ID which we would definitely have by Tuesdays at the latest  (it's now Wednesday and it still hasn't arrived) and then we could order a new password. He did, though, agree to extend the deadline to 15th February so we won't get fined.  When I looked back over our returns, in the five years since we started doing them ourselves, we have had the same problem filing them in 2009, 2010 and 2012. I know I'm not alone. HMRC receives a staggering 80 million calls a year which must surely indicate that our system of taxation is fundementally too complex. It is estimated that taxpayers waste an equally staggering £130 million waiting for their calls to be answered by a human being - well, revenue drone at least. But never fear, HMRC is now in the 'capable' hands of Lin Homer, former head of the The UK Border Agency, and we all know just how efficient they are!

And if you run a small business you need to gird your loins for the next bit of HMRC-inspired unfettered joy to come your way, the Real Time Initiative. Apparently our PAYE records are getting too complicated, probably because half the country has a second or third job to pay their electricity bills, and to avoid an embarrasing situation such as happened a few years ago when thousands of people got incorrect PAYE deducations, employers will now have to declare payments to their staff in real time. If you get paid monthly, your employer will now have to make monthly returns to HMRC, if you are paid weekly, they need to be submitted on a weekly basis, and God forbid that you are a pub or restaurant who pays staff at the end of each shift, because now you'll have to get on your new bit of HMRC software and declare your staff salaries every day. Like you have the time! It is small businesses that will drive economic recovery but the most likely result of this new ill-conceived idea is that employers will all move onto monthly payments, causing untold problems to shift or weekly paid staff who rely on the money quickly, or a huge rise in the black economy because it it simply too time consuming and complicated to employ people legally. Amazingly, although the RTI is imminent, hundreds, maybe thousands of small businesses have no idea that it is about to happen. Rather like the people who HMRC neglected to inform were losing their child benefit, they've  forgotten to tell them. But never mind, they are going to send out another letter...