Sunday, December 25, 2011

We wish you a Merry Christmas.....

Well, it's nearly midnight on Christmas Eve so time to turn in before Santa arrives. It's been a hectic run up to Christmas and not without it's drama.... well it wouldn't be Christmas in our family if it all went smoothly, so I just want to take a moment  to wish each and every one of you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy, Healthy and Prosperous New Year.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Stylish Mum? Moi?

Yesterday I received an e-mail from Mint Velvet, an online fashion retailer, telling me about an exciting new feature on their website, Mums in Style, and asked me if I'd like to join.

Apparently it's for women 'who believe that being a mum doesn't mean you have to sacrifice style and plays (sic) homage to those mums who arrive at the school gate looking effortlessly cool (even if they've been knee deep in Marmite, unfinished homework and floods of tears 5 minutes earlier).'

At the bottom of the e-mail are photos of ubercool, stylish mums showing off their effortless coolness.

My own particular style as I read the e-mail was a pair of jean, a pyjama top and a shower cap... but it was effortless though possibly not that cool.

As far as arriving at the school gate, in the days when I did, it was often in my pyjamas, wearing the Marmite down my front and the tears were usually mine.

I don't personally subscribe to the Yummy Mummy idea, god knows, just being a parent these days is hard enough without setting yourself impossible goals of lipstick and mascara but I must say Mint Velvet does have a few nice threads which, were I to want to try and transform my own very personal and slightly crumpled style into something more upmarket, would no doubt help me on my road to being a schoolgate fashion icon.

To be honest, I think the best thing that any parent can ask for is to get through the day with the same number of children as they started off with, never mind all the alphamummy- induced competitiveness that seems rife these days. Why do you have to be a stylish mum? Can't you just be a mum?  When your kids grow up do you really want them to say 'my childhood was crap but at least my mother always looked good'?

When we took our recent extended family holiday (from hell - ooops, did I really say that?) we accidentally found ourselves on 'Boden' beach, stuffed full of husbands barking wankspeak down their mobile phones while their gym-toned wives urged their high-achieving offspring, Xander and  Allegra, to build a better sandcastle than that family a bit further down the beach before they headed off to do a bit more revision for their SATs (which they'd be taking in a few years timne). Mummy could then dash off and take in a quick spinning class - am I the only one who doesn't get spinning? Why on earth would you sit on a stationary bike and peddle like buggery rather get on a proper bike and go for a nice ride in the country? Meanwhile Daddy would set up yet another hedge fund and teach Xander the ins and outs of the stock market using the new LeapPad 'How to Fleeced the Taxpayer' game.

A little bit of competitiveness is a good thing and should be encouraged but the lengths that some people go to these days to try and assert their superiority over their fellow man is really quite ridiculous. It's time we were all just ourselves.  There are far bigger problems in the world than whether or not Fellatia's mother turned up without the full slap on and wearing M&S rather than Joseph.

my a**e!

NB. This is not a sponsored post. I haven't received any payment from Mint Velvet - but I think I probably should!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Its to EuroPanto Time!

Stuck for some entertainment this festive season? Well thank goodness for the EuroPanto which is playing out right now on our television screens. Instead of forking out to watch jaded has-beens prance around the stage in outrageous costumes, you can sit the children down in front of the television with a giant bowl of pop corn for a spot of cross channel willy waving (figuratively speaking of course) in our very own 'CindEurella' starring David Cameron as the baby faced Obstinatia, Nicholas Sarkozy as  the poison dwarf Arrogantia, the two Ugly Sisters, Angela Merkel as Knöpfe (that's Buttons in German, I'm such a polyglot!), the single currency as 'CindEurella' and the entire Eurozone as Baron Hardup.

To a cry of 'It's behind ours' (your economy that is) watch Arrogantia and his chums Noyer (which means to drown in French, and I bet Obstinatia wishes he would) and Baroin point their  fingers and shout 'Oh no we didn't' (try to talk down your economy) while Obstinatia and his poodle, Cleggy retort 'Oh yes you did' (try to get Fitches to downgrade us instead of you).

Meanwhile  Knöpfe is running around like a madwoman trying to prevent CindEurella falling off a cliff and taking the wicked Baron Hardup with her.

And if the kids get bored of that, goodness knows this Panto has already run and run, you can always entertain them with the comments pages of most national newspapers where Arrogantia's serfs are claiming that  in any case their cheese is better, while Obstinatia's are pointing out that they may have 400 cheeses but all of them are brie and in the great scheme of things does it really matter?

Seriously though, the behaviour of Sarko, Baroin and Noyer has, in my opinion, brought French politics to a new low, if that's possible after Chirac was found guilty this week of embezzlement and only escaped jail because of his mental condition - that'll be all that unpasteurised cheese he's eaten no doubt.

They have acted like a bunch of petulant kids who's party has been spoiled because one kid didn't want to come. Whether or not he was right to stay away from the party only time will tell. However,  France has massive problems to face with most of it's major banks having their ratings downgraded and the country's economy put on negative watch but, in true Gallic style, is refusing to see the bigger picture and instead trying the 'My economy is better than your economy' style of playground politics favoured by the average 5 year old. And accusing Fitches of 'an Anglo Saxon conspiracy'? Don't they know it's a French owned company?

I'm no fan of British politicians by my answer to M. Baroin's claim that he'd rather be French than English would be so am I. We've got enough idiots in our own government without you. Merci.

My two favourite quotes of the week:  'The UK is isolated in the same way that someone who missed the Titanic is isolated' and 'Economists forecast fifteen of the last five recessions'.

"Oh do shut up you ridiculous little man"

"Well mah economee ees beeger than yoz.. oh no, wait a minute... Merde!"

Thursday, December 8, 2011

What's in a name.... Part Deux

Today, the school published the list of students receiving awards at the end of term awards ceremony. Naturally, The Boy and The Girl are both on the list – well they take after their mother of course! 
But more interesting than reading who won what, is who’s called what. A name is such an important thing and the odd poorly thought out name combination can lead to years of schoolyard-hell as my old friend Valerie Davies found out when she spent her formative years with VD beautifully chain stitched to her PE kit, much to the amusement of her classmates and visiting netball teams.
Another friend’s brother is called Piran, a Cornish name, St Piran being, apparently, the patron saint of tin miners. He said it ruined his life as he spent his entire time listening to people say ‘what?’, then having to spell it, explain its origins and so on. He now calls himself Pete.
Although the huge majority of names on the awards list were perfectly normal it did throw up a few interesting ones, some of which were a reminder of what was on the tv or in the pop charts in the late 80s and early 90s, some of which use a bit of ‘individual’ spelling, one of my pet hates. I mean, why Izzabelle and not Isabel, or Rebekka instead of Rebecca or Aleksandra instead of Alexandra? There was even an Indya for heaven’s sake. The name only has five letters. Is it really necessary to change one?
There were two Summers, one Summer-Louise and one Hollee-Summer (thus incorporating two of my pet hates, misspelling and seasons), three Nikitas (Elton John or the film, take your pick), a smattering of Tiegans (Dr Who) and two Crystals (Dallas maybe? Or Crystal Gayle?). There was one Giverny (I’d like to think Monet’s Garden but more likely the song by Chris Rea) and one Robson (Green maybe? He was pretty big in the 90s).
Our proximity to Wales provided two Anghareds (a name I love to be fair), a Rhydian (most likely not after the former X Factor contestant) and then there’s Deanna with a TRIPLE barrelled surname (possibly veh, veh posh but more likely her mother is unsure of her parentage so is covering all bases). On the ‘I made this up’ front is Taya, Sharra, Kahlan (from the Terry Goodking fantasy series maybe?), Tanisha (clearly from the West Wiltshire ghetto), a Sanchia (although there is a sleb journo called Sanchia too) and my personal favourites, Zoeena and Poppyella! There are the twins, Cima and Rima (why?) a boy called Izzy – not short for anything – Mica-Louise (maybe after Mica Paris who was having a bit of success in the 90s) and Finian (who may or may not have a rainbow).
I’m a lover of some older traditional names but Euphemia is possibly a step too far, Mahalia’s parents were probably left wing hippies who spent too much time bemoaning the departure of the Grateful Dead whilst smoking weed and banging on about human rights and poor Honeysuckle, god, how do you live with a name like that?
For pure chavness there are Sade-Tia (I went to a Sade concert and she was shite), Eboni (who isn’t black) and Siantelle (possibly a chav of welsh origins). To be honest, they could all have doctorates from Oxford but their names will shut more doors than they open.

But my absolute favourite of favourites is Regyqueen. Yes dear reader, I have found someone called Regyqueen but to be fair, he/she has a very foreign sounding surname so I’ll let him/her off.
So, if you are having a baby soon, or know someone who is, tell them that it may seem like a good idea to name your child after a singer/soapstar/reality tv star/season/plant/tree/from the combination of 5 consonants and 3 vowels from last week’s edition of Countdown, but the poor bugger has to carry that around for the rest of their lives and if it makes people groan, assume a poor level of literacy, snigger or just plain laugh out loud, well, it’s just not that fair.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Dear IT Department................

Firstly, can I just say thank you for the new art installation that has been sitting in my office for about 3 weeks now. What? It's not an art installation? It's the new printer is it?

Thank you also for your e-mails explaining that it was sitting there awaiting 'remote installation', although I was a bit unclear how you were going to remotely unplug the old one, wheel it out of the way, schlep over the new one and plug it in but hey, what do I know.

So imagine my excitement when I went into my office on Monday to find that you had done just that, although I'm not entirely sure that you really did do it all remotely, you little tinkers.  In the spirit of 'remote IT' you kindly sent me an e-mail explaining that I could learn how to use this new piece of kit online. There was a step by step guide, complete with screenshots, which told me everything except how to turn the damn thing on. Call me old fashioned but I prefer to learn about new technology from a human being. Makes it so much easier when the inevitable questions arise.

I was also delighted to hear that I could now print out my documents at any hub in the county. Marvellous!  Except that I don't go to any of the other hubs so this wonderful new benefit really wasn't much of one, all said and done. But still, you have reliably informed me that this new printer will save me time and my employer money and represents a new era of IT networking. Fabulous!

I was slightly less excited about the fact that I now hav to type in a pin number in order to get said printer to print my documents. This pin number must 'be kept secret and not divulged to any other staff member'. Well quite right! Just imagine the anarchy that could be wrought if anyone else has access to my pin number for the printer. It really doesn't bear thinking about.  People could be photocopying their arses willy nilly on MY account.  I'm delighted that I now have yet another secret code I have to remember on top of all the other ones I already have remember for my laptop/email account/online timesheets/procurement system/database/evidence room/office door. Is sticking it up on the office noticeboard secret enough? You see, the thing is I have such a bad memory for numbers.

So, I duly typed up a whole load of letters to those naughty lorry drivers who keep driving their big heavy lorries over the little Town Bridge (yes dear reader, I have progressed from counting sheep and cows to lorries. There really is no stopping me).  It is nothing too difficult, one letter on headed paper, one on plain paper. Simples. I follow the instructions on the internet to the letter, if you'll excuse the pun. I even remember to change it from duplex to simplex. It printed out one letter on headed paper. I waited for the second one on plain paper.... and waited.... and waited.  Oh well, never mind. I'll just print out another one on plain paper. That should be easy because that is the default setting.  TA DA! It printed out another copy on headed paper. So I go back to the beginning, for surely I must just have done something wrong.

Step 1. Select Paper Option. Check,

Step 2. Ensure 'automatic selection' is shown in the first window.  Check.

Step 3. Select 'simplex'. Check.

Step 4. Press 'Print'. Check. 

Nip over to printer, type in pin number, press 'login', select 'secure print', select my document, press 'secure print and delete'  - is i't just me or does this actually take twice as long as the old printer - and VOILA! It prints out on headed paper again.

I call one of my colleagues who checks me through each step in case of a blonde moment but he concurs that everything is as it should be. He suggests we select 'plain paper 80gsm' instead of 'automatic selection'. I press 'print', nip over to the printer, type in my pin number,  press 'login', select 'secure print', select my document, press 'secure print and delete' and wait with baited breath. It whirrs and chunders then beepsand flashed a red light at me. Now I don't know much about modern technology but I do know that red lights and printers are never a good sign.  It asks me to 'load paper'. Phew, that was all it was. I check the paper drawers but they were all full. Hmmm. So I opt for my usual method of troubleshooting which involves pressing every button as fast as possible in the hope of tricking it into believing that nothing was wrong.  It doesn't work but I do discover that it now wants me to load paper in the manual paper feed on the side. I mean, why? I didn't even know it had a feed on the side so why would I ask it to print out from there?  I so load the paper as instructed and the red light goes off. Hurrah! I press 'print' again and it prints out my letter. On headed paper.  I use a very rude word.

So back to Steve in IT. I describe my problem in detail and even send him a few of my own screenshots - two can play at that game. He replies straightway.

Problems like this, he tells me, are notoriously difficult to sort out. It's really a question of trial and error. Well that bit was true, it was a trial and there were lots of errors. But, he continues, 'what I think you have to do is.....' You know when somebody in IT says what he 'thinks' you have to do, that you are in trouble.

Neither of his suggestions work and by this time is was 4.30pm.  The chances of finding any meaningful answer to anything at work after 4.30pm is unlikely such are the demands of working in the public sector.

So, dear IT department. I lost approximately 2 hours doing battle with your new sooper-dooper all singing-all dancing labour and time saving printer.

Please may I have my old one back? I miss the comforting whirr of the toner cartridge squeezing the last bit of toner out.  I miss the paper jams and the slight smell of burning that used to waft from it.

                     Thank you

Thursday, December 1, 2011

All together... in UNISON... or maybe not!

Firstly I should put my cards on the table and say to those who don't already know that I am a <<whispers>> public sector worker. Yesterday many public sector workers went on strike over reforms to their pensions which they feel are unfair. It was either 'a damp squib' if you believe the Government or the biggest public sector strike since  yesterday/the 1920s/dinosaurs walked the earth, if you believe UNISON. Personally I'm not particularly minded to believe either of them.

Fortunately, I don't work on a Wednesday so the awkward question of whether to strike or not didn't rear its head. Even if it had, I would have chosen to work as normal. I don't agree with striking. I don't think it really achieves much. While I'm not quite up there with Jeremy Clarkson,slightly ironic considering the majority of his salary is paid by the taxpayer,  I do think that there are better ways to try and resolve disputes. To be honest, I'm more aligned with Eleanor Smith, the vice-president of UNISON and a theatre nurse at Birmingham Women's Hospital,who told the press, rather unwisely I would have thought, that she only joined the NHS for the pension. A case study in how to alienate the public perhaps?  I also wonder what she would have made of our own UNISON rep who actually went to work because striking would affect his final salary pension when he retires in a couple of years. How's that for solidarity with your fellow workers!

The Boy went shopping in Bath with his friends and was surprised to see many, many of his teachers, supposedly on strike, were enjoying an extra day of Christmas shopping. Surely they should have been manning the picket lines, or lobbying their MPs. At work, the picket line had disappeared by lunchtime. 

I'm not sure how many people in the public sector actually realise how much the private sector is suffering. My brother is now entering his third year without a pay rise. The Husband is now working for around £600-800 a month less than he was two years ago. My dad has seen his pension cut by nearly 70% in the past two years. He was told it was either that or the pension fund would collapse. He's accepted the hit because he hopes that it will get better in the future. He can't go on strike because, after all, who'd care? Meanwhile my colleagues gripe about losing their very generous petrol allowance. 

Only something like 35% of the private sector even have pensions, compared to around 82% in the public sector. Many private sector companies have no pension schemes and the returns on private pensions are so dire that those that can actually afford them will have to work well beyond the public sector retirement age of 65 just to be able to afford to retire. The Office for Fiscal Studies estimates that a private sector worker would have to pay between 15% and 40% of their monthly salary into a pension to get the same return as an average public sector one.

It's a difficult world we are living in today and everyone is suffering both in the public and the private sector. While I do blame the banks to a great extent for the mess we find ourselves in now, most of us also played our part in the financial crisis by maxing out our credit cards and buying houses we couldn't really afford. It's now time for everyone to pull together, to take one for the team, to do everything we can to dig out way out of this mess. And that's not going to happen while people are still demanding benefits that others can't afford or expecting to retire earlier on a pension that is funded by people who can't afford to retire themselves.

What has happened to that old Blitz spirit that the British used to be so renowned for? Everyone  seems so self-centred, not interested in the bigger picture or the greater good, just in what they can get out of it.  If we all pull together, act a bit more selflessly and a bit less selfishly, then things might just improve in the future for everyone.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Quandries, quandries....

Well, it only seems like yesterday that we were angsting over schools for The Boy and packing him off in his purple blazer and cap to his first day at Big School and now, hardly a moment later,  we are looking at Sixth Forms. I really don't know where the last 10 years have gone.

We are so lucky to have a choice of two very different schools for Sixth Form. Both are rated as outstanding, one a grammar, one the comprehensive he currently attends, a school that I am passionate about. The Boy is considering medicine and feels that he would stand a better chance of getting into medical school from a grammar rather than the local comp. A sad reflection on the private/grammar/state divide in the UK but unfortunately quite likely true.

The Boys Grammar is very highly ranked in the league tables, very academic and well resourced, offers 30 different academic A levels and would, I know, push The Boy hard, which he needs. He's a typical teenage boy, struggling to find the balance between schoolwork and his addiction to his social life but who manages to get top marks by doing very little and I want him to be the best that he can be, not the best that he can be bothered to be.  Boys from the Grammar go on to the Russell Group universities. It's made very clear in the prospectus that those are the only universities they rate and consider suitable for their Old Wordsworthians.  And they wear suits in the Sixth Form, which, surprisingly, The Boy is very keen on.  The headmaster was impressive and I left his address feeling that this was probably the right place for The Boy, there was a strong sense of tradition which I love (I'm from Tunbridge Wells for God's sake, it's in the water!) and it reminded me very much of my old Grammar school which I loved and which did it's best for me.  I loved the idea of the Mentoring system there, where a member of staff mentors them all the way through Sixth Form but.... I wasn't sure about some of the teachers.

The Boy wants to do Chemistry so we made our way to the lab to meet the Head of Department.  The room was packed as you'd expect from a) a boy's school and b) a school with an excellent record in the sciences. I then listened to him bang on for 10 minutes about how hard it was, how his A* students struggled with it and how you shouldn't do it unless you were really, really clever.  Within minutes the room had practically emptied. He wasn't welcoming or particularly interested in The Boy or his friend and made no attempt to discuss the syllabus or, indeed, anything else with us.  We later discovered that more students take Chemistry than any other A level and clearly he was doing his best to try and cull the numbers a bit for next year. The Boy said he didn't think he would do Chemistry after all.

We went to Physics where they said it was expected that you would do Maths A level as well, which he doesn't want to do but Biology went better. We spoke to a current student who raved about it and we left feeling a bit more positive. In French we explained that he had spent half of his school life in France. She asked if he could write French.  I reiterated that he had been in the French public school system, not an international school as she has clearly assumed. Meanwhile the boy chatted happily with the French assistant who was from Normandy. The language department is excellent with over 30 boys studying French plus the option to study Spanish, Russian and Mandarin. There is a comprehensive programme of trips and exchanges as well.

The Boy left the Grammar feeling very good about it and determined to apply, although he had changed his plan to do Chemistry, Biology, Physics and French to Biology, Geology, English Language and French. It would mean a longer school day, a more complicated journey to school and leaving his very close group of friends, although four of them were also applying.

Then last week we went to the Open Evening for the Sixth Form at his current school. People who read my old French blog will know that one of the reasons we moved back from France was because of my reservations about the school system there. From the moment we walked into the school we knew we had made the right decision. Everything about it felt right. So I really wanted them to step up to the plate for the Sixth Form.

As it turned out, they didn't. The head of Sixth Form was a bit uninspiring and the brief talk by one of the head students saying that he managed to hold down a part time job and still go out partying was not what I really wanted The Boy to hear. The Head didn't make an appearance which was, I thought, a big mistake.The next disappointment was to find that both Chemistry and French were in the same pool which meant that he would not be able to do both. On the positive side it was standing room only in the hall so clearly a lot of people rate the Sixth Form but  I left to meet the subject teachers with a sinking feeling that this school that I love so much was going to let us down. That would, though, make our decision much easier.

First stop was the French department where they get excellent results, though they only have a very small number taking the subject. On the one hand this is good but on the other it can be quite difficult getting inspiration from such a small group. There was no French assistant and only a day trip to Paris rather than a week long exchange but then The Boy lived in France for 5 years so really there's not much he doesn't know about French culture and family life.  We talked about the clash with Chemistry and were advised to speak to the head of French for advice.

Next stop was Geography. The Boy has the most amazing Geography teacher. He's very unteacher-like and I'm fairly sure that in our last Parent Teacher meeting he used the 'f' word but it was so quick and so unexpected that The Husband and I were never quite sure if we'd heard him right. But what he lacks in the Queen's English he makes up for in passion for his subject - not to mention the blind adoration of his students. To watch him in full flow during his presentation on A Level geography was magnificent. I wanted to sign up for it! He knows that The Boy is thinking of another Sixth Form but had already said that even if he left he was welcome to come on the field trip to Iceland next year. We went to speak to him after his presentation and I jokingly asked him if he wanted to have The Boy in his class. His reply stunned me (proud mummy moment coming up......) He said, in front of the other parents and students, 'if he leaves it will be a tragedy for this school'. I looked at him blankly while The Boy went scarlet and studied his shoes. 'I mean it', he continued 'he will be a huge, huge loss. He's student leader material, he's got an amazing brain, he gets his head round complex issues easily, if there's a difficult question I know his hand will be up first. Really, we don't want to lose him'.  'Um, it's not definite he's going to leave yet', I said meekly.

On then to Chemistry where we were greeted by a young, enthusiastic teacher who clearly loved her subject. Yes, it was hard, she told him but she didn't try to put him off. She asked what grade he was predicted and said that he'd be fine as long as he was prepared to put in the work. The Biology teacher was the same.

On our way out, we were told that the Head of French was looking for us. We tracked her down in the French room. She told us that as The Boy already spoke French he and another girl (also educated in France and who's choice of Philosophy A level also clashed with French) could 'self learn' for the A level. As he would only be taking three other timetabled A levels he would have 10 free periods a week so the five of these that would normally be devoted to his fourth A level would be spent with the other girl in the library working independently or in the classroom where the French staff would put on extra lessons for them to go over the A level topics and help develop their essay writing. The Girl, who is currently doing her AS in French (in year 9) could join them to complete her A2 as once she starts her GCSE options next year she may not be able to continue having French with the Sixth Form as she does now.  'So he can still do chemistry?' I asked. Yes he could.  So once again, the school has gone out of it's way to accommodate my bilingual children.

In recent years they have started to address the problems of getting comprehensive students into top universities and now have a staff member who works just with the top students on applications for the Oxbridge and the best of the rest. They've introduced Critical Thinking as this is now a requirement by many of them as well as interview techniques and how to write a shit-hot Personal Statement.

But this, of course, has left us in a quandry.  The Boy originally was definite about wanting to go to the Grammar school but now he has extra big love for his geography teacher and is feeling more confident about doing chemistry. He's torn and so are we.  On the one hand we have tradition, a school that will ease his passage into a good university, in the top 40 state schools in the country and a very academic outlook. On the other we have a school that is not so academic, in the top 200 but that is bending over backwards to facililitate him and clearly rates him as a student. What to do?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

We'll Meat Again.....

And so it was, a few months ago, that The Girl uttered those words that every mother fears, well, every mother as disorganised as me at least. 'Mum, I'm becoming a vegetarian'.

My first thought wasn't 'well I'm proud to have a daughter who knows her own mind and isn't afraid to stand up for what she believes in'. No, it was more along the lines of 'Damn, two lots of cooking'. I struggle to come up with exciting wholesome non-vegetarian food, now I'll have to throw some vegetarian meals into the mix.

Now I should say at this point that I have previous in the vegetarian stakes (steaks...tee hee) as I myself was vegetarian for 9 years. My own foray into a meat-free world came about as a result of an unfortunate experience with zebra in Africa.

I was on holiday in Kenya with some girlfriends and our guide suggested an evening at 'Carnivore', strap line, 'A Beast of a Feast', in which you get to feast on all sorts of beasts that you probably wouldn't find on the meat counter of Morrisons. It is a vegetarian's hell, with a huge barbecue pit with assorted wild and not so wild animal parts cooking over an open fire.  The meat is on huge skewers, rather like spears and the waiters walk around and hack large chunks off on your plate.  I was never a huge meat eater and started to feel slightly queasy at the sheer, well, meatiness of it all.  I stuck to the more familiar meats but was then, as a result of an ethical argument about why I would eat cow but not zebra, I was challenged to try some zebra. I always steered clear of eating animals that I felt an emotional attachment to and having been brought up around horses I could never eat anything equine or equine-like and a zebra was like a stripy horse wasn't it? Anyway, I relented and agreed to try zebra.

Eating the sole of my shoe after a long walk through cow dung would have been a more pleasant experience. It was tough and strong tasting and with every chew all I could imagine was a baby zebra galloping around the plains calling for it's mother, whose rump was now on my plate.  I chewed and chewed but I couldn't swallow it and from then on, just the sight of meat made me nauseous.

I ate your mother
My mother was suitably horrified but I had, at least, had the decency to leave home before making this momentous decision not to eat meat. I can still remember my first vegetarian Christmas and the delicious nut roast that Mum make.  By 6pm I was poleaxed by the worst case of wind in the Northern Hemisphere and had to retire to a bed with a hot water bottle where I farted the night away. And, of course, my sister's wedding where the hotel's idea of 'vegetarian' was salmon. Err, point of order sir, salmon counts as meat in the vegetarian world.  The guest book still bears the immortal word of my friend Gerard, who partnered me to the wedding 'I hope your sister's vegetarianism gets better soon'. And it did eventually.

When I was pregnant with The Boy I had a serious craving. Not coal, not lemons or ice cream but Iceland frozen shepherds pies.... oh, and Doritos.  Every day saw me skulking guiltily around the freezers loading up my basket with enough shepherds pies to keep me going through the day. I craved them for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and several times in between. Honestly, after 9 years of being vegetarian what a godawful thing to break my vegetarian vows on.

But back to The Girl. The whole vegetarian thing came right out of left field. We'd always joked that a little carnivore like her would never become vegetarian. She'd never much liked the butchery section of the supermarkets and she couldn't walk into a butchers because the smell made her feel sick but as her idea of 'Five a Day' would be a carrot and 4 tins of sweetcorn. Vegetables were just not her thing.

I tried to be supportive... well, actually I didn't. I told her that she barely ate vegetables and that she would either live on cheese and get fat or starve to death.  She told me she was prepared to still eat fish so I pointed out that fish feel pain too. Big mistake. 'OK' she said, 'I won't eat fish either then'. Damn, damn, damn.  I tried to get to the bottom of her change of heart. Was it ethical? She told me she didn't like the idea of animals being killed for food. I told her that abattoirs were very closely regulated, that vets were on hand to ensure that they animals didn't suffer, that if we didn't eat them we'd still have to kill them anyway as there isn't enough room for us all and wasn't it better that they were killed for food rather than just killed but she wasn't moved. I resorted to whining about how difficult this would make my life, having to think of two different meals every day. She offered to cook her own food. I felt guilty.

The Boy was equally dismissive. 'I give you two weeks' he said before listing all the things that she wouldn't be able to eat, jelly, haribo sweets, beef gravy, a nice juicy steak.....

I decided that the fairest thing would be for us to all eat vegetarian at least twice a week. This went down like a pork chop in a synagogue with The Boy, a compulsive fitness freak who also feels that anything that doesn't require cutting with a steak knife is not real food. He complained that being 'forced' to eat vegetarian food would have an adverse effect on his physical fitness. So far this whole vegetarian thing was a minefield!

Now, two months into the vegetarian adventure, The Girl shows every sign of keeping it up. She checks labels religiously for signs of gelatin, has restricted herself to the one type of Haribos that is veggie-friendly and, alarmingly, has started reading the blog of a teenage vegan. God forbid she goes that far.  On the plus side though, she has embraced vegetables that she wouldn't touch before and is finding out that courgettes are cool and aubergines are awesome - and also that Jaffa cakes don't contain gelatin.. Brussell sprouts are still a step too far though.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Lest we forget our UNarmed forces

Today is Remembrance Sunday, the day we remember those who have given their lives to protect our country and our freedom. It is right and proper that we should remember them. But what about our UNarmed forces, the men of the Merchant Navy, for example, shouldn't we remember them too? Yet they rarely get a mention.

My dad was in the Merchant Navy. He joined because he was too young to go into the Royal Navy.  He was just shy of his 16th birthday in the last years of the war but he wanted to do his part.

The UK needed one million tonnes a week of imported goods in order to continue to fight and for the survival of its population, most of it coming from North America. It was the men of the Merchant Navy, mostly in unarmed ships, whose job it was to keep the supply lines open in the face of continuous U Boat and air attacks from Germany and naval attacks from Italy. They were supported by the Royal Navy and the Royal and Canadian Air Forces. It was the longest running military campaign in  World War II, reaching its peak between 1942 and 1945. In the early years of the war, merchant ships were being sunk faster than shipyards could turn them out.

My dad was on the convoys. His ship was sunk by a German U Boat, something I only found out a couple of years ago. He still prefers not to talk about the horror of it. The chances of rescue for merchant seamen was slim When a ship was lost, less than half of the men were likely to survive. Before the advent of the small rescue ships which accompanied the convoys in later years - when they were available - merchant seamen who survived the initial torpedos and the burning oil in the sea and managed to get to a lifeboat were often just abandoned because it was simply too dangerous to stop and rescue them. They then faced a slow, horrible death from exposure and starvation. Even if they were lucky enough to have a rescue ship accompanying the convoy, the fact that it had to stop dead in the water to pick them up meant it was a sitting target for the U Boats and the Luftwaffe. My dad was, thankfully, one of the lucky ones.

He also saw action in the Pacific and Burma and was awarded the Atlantic, Burma and Pacific Stars.

Burma Star with Pacific bar
By the end of the war 3,500 merchant vessels had been sunk on the Atlantic Convoys alone, compared to 175 Royal Navy ships. The total loss of life in the Merchant Navy during World War II was over 50,000.

Winston Churchill later said "The Battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the war. Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea or in the air depended ultimately on its outcome".

Without the brave civilian sailors of the Merchant Navy, the war might have ended differently. 

And it was after the war that they realised that their civilian status meant that  even though they had faced the same risks as their military counterparts they would be treated very differently.  Priority for university places and apprenticeships went to the men and women who had served in the military. My dad longed to study medicine but there were no places available for him as he wasn't considered, despite his medals, to have been 'under command' in the war.

The insult continued with the Remembrance Day service at the Cenotaph.  The men of the Merchant Navy were not invited to attend, nor allowed to join the march past. My dad watched it religiously on television and every year he commented on the lack of representation of the Merchant Navy.  In 1999, after years of lobbying, they were finally allowed to take part, almost 60 years to the day after the first Merchant vessel, the Athenia, was lost in World War II. 

So on Remembrance Sunday, with all the talk of remembering our 'armed forces', just for a moment remember the unarmed forces who played such a vital part in the war.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Is there anybody out there....?

Hello, hellooooooo blogworld, is there anybody still out there?  If there was a 'Crap Blogger' award I'd be giving it to myself for my monstrous lack of blog posts over the past few weeks but I have a good reason. You see, I've moved. Yes, dear reader, my blog is now officially misleading as it is no longer the diary of the the incumbent of River Cottage, and me working for Trading Standards too!

I've moved a little bit further down the Wylye Valley to a lovely little village where my neighbour is my blogging pal and community chook keeper, A Modern Military Mother.

So, do I change the name of my blog or do I continue to shamelessly piggy back off the good name of a certain slebrity chef and forager of hedgerows? Let this be a warning to new bloggers, go for a generic name.

In the meantime, here's a post I did earlier for the Huffers. Needless to say, the world didn't end.

Normal service will be resumed soon

Friday, October 21, 2011

Death of a Despot... but do we really need to see it?

The world is rejoicing the death of a despot - or  is it just that they now have a better chance of getting their hands on Libyan oil - but is is really necessary to show his dead body on TV and before the watershed to boot.

Yes, he was clearly an evil or possibly just a deranged man but it doesn't make me feel any better to see him with a bullet hole in his head.  I'm not sure I even really wanted to see him begging for his life when he was captured. What can be gained from this?

I know some people argue that we need proof of death to escape the rumour and conjecture that, say, surrounded the death of Hitler, with conspiracy theorists arguing for years after 'that Berlin bunker' that he was alive and living in South America/Darkest Africa/Mars and I know that this isn't necessarily something new with pictures of dead despots going back as far as Mussolini probably further, but surely the 'proof' only needs to be shown to heads of state, not the general public. The same media that blames, loudly and often, violent video games for a rise in real-life violence, seems not to show the same calls for restraint when it comes to seeing real-life death played out through their own broadcasts or newspapers. The photos on the Daily Mirror website were particularly disgusting, showing Gaddafi's bloodied body, bullet wounds very evident, laid out in Misrata.

I found the death of Osama bin Laden, played out like some sort of freakish reality show for the US government with cameras on hand to witness their every 'oooh', 'aaaahh' and 'boy that had to hurt' to be slightly distasteful but it does beg the question, where will voyeuristic television take us next? Helmetcam? Bulletcam?Executioner's Chaircam?

To be honest, I find 'The Only Way is Essex' pushes the boundaries of what is decent and acceptable quite far enough, but dead dictators. No thanks!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Rugby World Cup Zola Budd - You play for WHICH team?' Award

In rugby, as in many other sports, players for national teams may have a fairly tenuous link to their adopted country. Readers of my age will remember the Zola Budd debacle, when the barefoot South African teenager was fast tracked to a British passport so she could compete for Great Britain in the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. As with so many schemes masterminded by The Daily Mail (yes, causing trouble even in those days) it was a disaster and after tripping and taking out America's Darling, Mary Decker, she scuttled off back to South Africa which was, really, her home.  Her British passport has probably only been useful for jumping the immigration queues at Gatwick. So here are my nominations for the players who really sound like they should be playing for another team.

1.  Making his second appearance in my RWC awards is Toby Faletau who plays for ....... Wales

2.  Then just to confuse you, Simon Danielli

3.... and Nick de Luca

...... play for Scotland

4.  While Luke McClean who sounds like he should play for Scotland......

..... actually plays for Italy (and was born in Australia)

5.  Adam Byrnes sounds like he should play for Ireland but.....

..... he plays for Russia. (Although he made his name playing in Ireland and Australia, he declared for Russia on the grounds that his maternal grandmother is Russian)

6.  Does Paul Williams play for Wales?  No....

..... he plays for Samoa. (His father is an ex-All Black and his brother plays for Clermont in France but after a successful career in New Zealand he declared himself for Samoa internationally)

7.  Shaun Webb

8.  James Arlidge

9.  And Luke Thompson

.... sound like they should play for England but they actually play for ...... Japan! As do Michael Veitch, Bryce Robins and Ryan Nicholas.  Both Luke Thompson and Shaun Webb got Japanese citizenship on residency grounds a mere month before the start of the World Cup.. and there's me thinking that their great grannies were Japanese!

10.  And finally, at Number 10, everybody's favourite Man Overboard, Manu Tuilagi, who could play for Samoa ....

...... but, as most of us know, Manu plays for England. His is probably one of the most tenuous links to the nationality of the country he plays for as he was, until last year, an illegal immigrant. But hey, if you're an illegal with a talent, who cares?  Not the UK government it would appear.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Rugby World Cup Donald Trump Bad Hair Award

I had intended to post this last weekend but the shock exit of  England against a French team that, the week before would have struggled in an under 8s tag team, has left me a bit flat. But never mind, this is rugby. We have to man up and support the French Welsh French oh, who bloody cares.

But as a bit of light relief from the excitement and pressure of the semi-finals , I am giving you my nominations for the very special 'Donald Trump Bad Hair' award.

In no particular order.....

1. M'a Nonu - The All Blacks

Looking bizarrely as if he's dreadlocked his ear hair, M'a is more NoNo than Nonu

2.  Berrick Barnes

Staying downunder, my next nominee is Jedward-in-Training Berrick Barnes. (How long is that man's neck?)

3.  Zane Kirchner - Bokke

Zane is shocked to discover just how daft his hair is....

4.  Jerry Flannery - Ireland

Hailing from the West of Ireland, a place we all love. It's just like England 40 years ago.... .including the hair styles apparently

5.   Toby Faletau  - Wales

Toby from Tonga (that well known suburb of Cardiff) loves his big hair. Not sure I do though

6.  Martin Castrogiovanni - Italy

Very nearly a contender for the Facial Hair of Shame award, no bad hair award would be complete without the hirsute Mr Castrogiovanni's barnet, which would only be collar length if he actually had a neck

7.  Eric Fry - USA

Just when you thought the Bobby Charlton comb-over was dead and gone, along comes Eric to bring it to the next generation

8.  Ippei Asada - Japan

Poor Ippei looks as if his hair has been stuck on as an afterthought, or possibly cut out of a magazine and popped on a photo of him

9.  Census Johnston - Samoa

The South Seas Island teams provided rich pickings for the bad hair awards but one of my favourites is Census Johnston - and what a faaabulous name too! It might have looked OK on Michael Bolton in the 19802 but come on Census, this is the 21st Century

10.  Andrey Garbuzov - Russia

Showing off the Boris Karloff look to it's greatest effect, Andrey is something of a trend setter in Krasnoyarsk. (That's in Siberia in case you were wondering)

So, who get's you vote?

PS. Dear IRB, it's me again, using you photos without permission. Just a little reminder that my penalty is to have the All Blacks go a Haka in my lounge. Don't forget now......... please

Thursday, October 6, 2011

EDF.. Extemely Dimwitted Fools!

People often say to me 'Oh, you must miss living in France'. Well I don't.  The cheap wine and summer sunshine was never quite enough to make up for hair-wrenching frustration that is dealing with just about any French company or institution.  Their job application forms must surely have a box to tick whereby you have to confirm that you will never, at any time, show any ability towards independent thought and joined up thinking.

Take EDF for example. I'm trying to change the electricity account at our house in France back into my own name. There appears to be no number to call from outside France so I've tried to do it online.

I typed in my name and address. It wouldn't accept my postcode because French postcodes only have numbers but I've got round that in the past by putting in a line of zeros then adding the postcode to one of the fields that allows numbers and letters. No problem.

I put in the address of the property. No problem there. I even managed to find the Point de Livraison which is absolutely vital to identifying your property correctly (apparently). I put in the name of our former tenants. Still going swimingly. The only teeny weeny problem came when it asked for a meter reading.  The outgoing tenants, not content with not paying rent for the past 5 months and trashing the house, refuse to let me have the meter readings, so I left if blank.

EDF emailed me.  (I've translated it into English for ease)

"Madame, thank you for registering your new account online. However, before we can create it, we need to have a meter reading'

I e-mailed them back

"Monsieur/Madame, thank you for your e-mail. You will see from my application that I live in England so unfortunately I can't supply a meter reading. Please could you arrange to one of your meter readers to visit the property and take a reading. Cordialement"

They e-mailed again

"Madame, thank you for your e-mail. However. before we can set up your account we need to have a meter reading. Please supply one"

Hmmm. I e-mailed back

"Monsieur/Madame.  I'm afraid that I live in England and as the house is in France I can't supply a meter reading. Please arrange to have the meter read. Cordialement"

Another reply landed in my inbox

"Madame, thank you for your e-mail. Please supply the exact address of your future home as well as the name of the former tenants.  Please note that we cannot set up your account till you have supplied us with a  meter reading"

By now I was feeling slightly less cordial

"Monsieur/Madame, thank you for your e-mail. I  have already supplied the address of my house in France. It was a mandatory field in the online registration form. Likewise, I have already supplied the name of my former tenants, that was also a mandatory field on the online registration form.  Unfortunately I am still in the UK and my house is still in France so it is not feasible for me to supply you with a meter reading. Cordialement"

Bing, you have a new message......

"Madame,  thank you for supplying the requested information. However, please note that we cannot set up your account until you have supplied us with a meter reading" (their bold).  If you would like to discuss this with us please telephone on the number on the reverse of your bill.

So I replied again...

"Monsieur/Madame, thank you for your e-mail.  There is absolutely no point in requesting a meter reading, even in bold letters. It will not alter the fact that I am in England and my house (and it's electricity meter) are in France. In between us is a small sea (La Manche) and a large landmass (La France), therefore I cannot supply one. Please would you arrange for the meter to be read.  I am unable to call you on the number on the reverse of my bill as I do not have a bill. I do not have a bill as I am not yet a customer. That is what I'm trying to sort out now"

And guess what they said...

"Madame, we are unable to open an account without a meter reading. Please supply us with an up to date meter reading otherwise we will have to arrange for an operative to  visit the property and read the meter"

Hoo - Bloody - Ray!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Rugby World Cup Facial Hair of Shame Award

Facial hair seems to be in abundance in this year's Rugby World Cup with everything from the 'I model myself on George Michael' look to 'Amish is cool'. Here are my nominations for the RWC Facial Hair of Shame Award. Who do you think should get it?

1. Lionel Nallet - France

 First on my list is 'Les Bleus' Lionel Nallet. Not exactly off the pages of French Vogue is he? He's a bit more 'Homeless People 'r' Us.

2.  Maxime Medard - France

What's this? Another 'Bleu'?  This time it's Maxime Medard. I like retro, sometimes retro is good, but Medard's 70s style mutton chops are just crying out for a razor

3.  Dan Cole - England

Ginger beards are just a great big no-no. Nuff said.

4.  Adam Jones - Wales

Just wrong. Wrong on so many fronts

5.  Cornelius Van Zyl - Italy (yes, Italy)

Sporting a fine 'Italian' name and a patchy, straggly beard, Cornelius is one of many from the Italian team who could have made the list

6.  Natani Edward Talei - Fiji

I mean, really, is it worth it?

7.  Adam Kleeburger - Canada

From one extreme to the other, Adam's 'Amish is The New Black' beard is so impressive it's even been trending on Twitter. Sadly, for his legions of beard fans he plans to shave it off after the Rugby World Cup.

8.  Pat Danahy - USA

Although it may look like a fake, stuck on beard, I am reliably informed that it is, in fact, real

9.  Vladimir Botvinnikov - Russia

There's no hiding that Brucie chin on our Vlad

10.  Jebb Sinclair - Canada

For the final candidate we are back to Canada, to Jebb Sinclair, seen here sporting 'My Mom and Dad are Cousins' look

So, who gets your vote?

Coming soon... The Rugby World Cup Donald Trump Bad Hair Day Award and the Rugby World Cup Most Messed Up Face Award

P.S Thanks to the RWC Official Site for the photos. I've probably breached your copyright but if that's the case please send the All Blacks to do a Haka in my lounge. I promise to be very frightened....

Friday, September 30, 2011

Those three words I love to hate....

Which three words? You can read my latest blog on the Huffington Post here

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Rugby's Top Totty - World Cup Edition

As a long time follower of the game with the odd-shaped ball, it comes as no surprise that in a recent survey by the dating site Zoosk, rugby players were voted the sexiest hunks. What was slightly surprising though was that this appears not to have been reported outside of India. No doubt a conspiracy by the ones who play with the round ball.  For me, of course, it's all about the thighs game but for those of you who prefer to just enjoy the legs and bums, here is my Rugby World Cup Top Totty.

In no particular order

1.  Ben Foden

Ben is the nearest rugby has to a footballer.  A former Pop Idol auditionee, now married to one fifth of the girl band, The Saturdays, Ben is a bit of alright, even if he can't seem to keep his jeans up - I recommend a nice piece of string, Ben

2.  Dan Carter

A regular on any list of rugby totty, Good body, slightly overexposed but hey, who cares. We know what's in his boxers thanks to his ad campaign for Jockey underwear.  Oh, and probably the best player in the world

3.  Ben Youngs

One of the better things to come out of Norfolk. Cute, boyish good looks, too young for me really to be commenting on without it being a bit creepy!  Couldn't find a single photo of him in his undies... Damn!

4.  Gonzalo Tiesi

The now-injured and out of the World Cup Argentinian Centre and Dieux du Stade's Mr December is just a bit of alright really. Phenomenal bum too, but then I only watch for the game.....

5.  James Haskell

I have a soft spot for English lock forward James Haskell, who as Mr August in the Dieux du Stade calendar shows that he really had the most perfectly shaped thighs  abs ball

6.  Francois Steyn

The rather preposterously named Francois Phillipus Lodewyk Steyn is the wunderkind of the Bokke and despite a liking for sporting rather suspect facial hair, he easily makes the list

7.  Mike Phillips

The enfant terrible of Welsh Rugby and one half (with Duffy) of the second biggest slebrity couple in Wales, Mike nearly didn't make it to the World Cup having been thrown out of the team because of his 'anger management' issues. Allowed back in after promising to go into therapy. Hang on a minute, I'm sure I had an  O' level in counselling rugby players with issues

8.  Jonny Wilkson OBE

'There is a god and Jonny is his name' was a familiar banner around rugby grounds after his last second drop goal to win the 2003 World Cup. Quintessentially English, even if he does play rugby in France but a tendancy to break rather easily

9.  Richie McCaw

All Blacks openside flanker, captain and all round top totty. I like a man with a nice Haka

10.  Todd Clever

Despite a penchant for Michael Boltonesque locks, US captain Todd Clever is a bit of alright in a rugged sort of way. You could imagine him wrestling a bison, or is it just me.  Just me then...