Archive for the ‘That’s Life’ Category

FOUR FINGERS AND THIRTEEN TOES – The Definition of a Queue… for a “Disabled Loo”

July 11, 2015

Correct me if I’m wrong but the definition of a “Queue” has always been waiting in line, taking your turn, a group of people waiting for something.

In this connection, one of our greatest British summertime traditions is the queuing for entry to Wimbledon … that most British of sporting occasions.

Only last week, we were treated to a television report on the delights of seeing people queue for Wimbledon’ opening games.  The camera then panned to another queue, and it all culminated with the sight of another queue where those avid die-hard Wimbledon fans could leave their tents and other paraphernalia before – yes you’ve guessed it, joining another queue before gaining entry to the hallowed ground.

What struck me about this report was the very British way in which, no matter whether in rain or searing heat, there was no pushing or shoving, but just patience.

So why is it that such restraint can’t be exercised when people queue to use what many quaintly described as a “disabled toilet.”

Before I go on, I have a bit of an issue with such a description, as it conjures up images of a toilet with a limp or some other obvious impairment(!), and so for the rest of this blog, I shall use what I, and most of the disabled peoples movement, consider is the correct terminology, and described such facilities as “accessible”.

I now have to interject again and emphasis the point that a full-time-wheelchair-users idea of an “accessible toilet”, is poles apart from most providers of so-say, accessible toilets!  They should not be any of the following:-

  • a regular toilet cubical with the door opening outward
  • the above, plus one grab rail
  • the above, plus a baby changing unit sticking out from the wall
  • a storage cupboard
  • a cloakroom
  • a bin collection point
  • an alternative for those too lazy to queue
  • for disabled wannabes
  • for a family trip to the loo (unless at least one member is a bona fide disabled person)
  • A stinking cluttered claustrophobic compartment!

Ideal “accessible toilets” are:-

  • Changing Places Toilets (Designed so that they are completely accessible and provide sufficient space and equipment for people who are not able to use the toilet independently. See – http://www.changing-places.org/ )
  • A truly compliant Accessible Toilet (The guidance in the Building Regulations Approved Document M 2010 & 2013 amendments, and in BS8300-2009 should be accepted, in my opinion as the bare minimum requirements. They are based on many years of research and need to be followed exactly because all of the requirements are important to someone.  What may appear to be a small and insignificant detail to some may pose a real element of difficulty or even danger to a disabled person.)

CHANGING PLACES TOILET

Anyway, over the last couple of months, we have travelled up and down the UK using, wherever possible, motorway routes.  They are generally quicker, traffic jams and Friday getaways permitting, and of course, we are afforded the opportunity to stop, if we need, and use the delightful facilities that are represented (or even misrepresented for that matter) as motorway service areas.

We’ve all been there … those oases of calm that purport to offer you rest, relief and food.  Well, yes they do allow you to rest – always assuming you can find a quiet spot in the car park, and you don’t stay more than 2 hours (otherwise you’ll get whacked with a bill for leaving your tyres parked in a stationary position for more than the permitted time); And granted, you can get food – if you can call pre-packed sandwiches (curling up at the edges) and overpriced coffee and muffins from a well known coffee chain, food.

However, what really gets my gander up is the so-called accessible toilet … If you’ve every ventured into one, you’ll know why I say so-called.  It should be more aptly named the accessible store cupboard.  Therein, you will find buckets, mops, and bins of all sorts … Sanitary bins, paper towel bins, nappy bins – I ask you, how many bins does a disabled person need to use to get rid of all their disposables when they use the loo?

So, when you’re desperate for the loo, and your PA has managed to re-arrange the bins, you then proceed to undertake that most precarious of operations by getting onto the toilet seat.  At this point, it is worth looking at the back of the door, where you will find a schedule of staff members who have inspected this facility during the day.  What I’d really like to know, is whether these staff members have undertaken a proper inspection, because 9 times out of 10 the loo seat is wobbly … Ahhhhh!

Having successfully negotiated the transition from the real world, to the world of the wobbly toilet seat, it would be nice to think you could achieve some inner peace for the duration of your stay, but no … then there comes a rattle, rattle of the lock and a light knock on the door … “Are you OK in there?” comes a voice (note, I don’t say concerned voice) from the other side of the door.  Now, just remember that it has taken a while to re-arrange the bins, making an attempt to secure a wobbly seat, and when all you want is sit in quiet contemplation, some impatient so and so from the outside wants to know if you’re alright!

The simple answer is NO … I am not alright.  Whatever I need to do, I need to do it without interruption.  But, in our usual manner (adopted by most disabled people) the response is “Yes, fine thank you.”  One would assume this reply should allay even the most concerned of traveller.  Sadly that is not the case.  Less than a minute later, comes another knock on the door – This time louder and more impatient than the last.  Now I have to raise my voice “OCCUPIED” … “Please be patient”.  I have to confess to more than a tinge of annoyance in my voice – but I think I’m entitled to sit on the loo in peace for as long as it takes to perform my ablutions!

Most people would take the hint, back off and leave me to contemplate what I am going to say when I’ve finished, opened the door, and hopefully brought a little bit of contrition to those door knockers, when they see me emerging – all fours fingers and thirteen toes of me – with either a PA or Steve.  If it’s Steve, it should render them speechless, two wheelchair users coming out of an accessible loo … Sounds like a rather fun Paralympic game to me.  Maybe Sir Philip Craven could give it some thought in time for the 2016 games!

However, I digress.  I haven’t got as far as opening the door, to leave those outside oozing profuse apologies for rushing me … Sadly, there is a third prong of attack that will be used by those impatient travellers, and that is the Toilet Supervisor.  Oh yes, off they, or one of their entourage have gone, and found the Supervisor who apparently has the over-ride key, and I think you know what’s coming next.

Well, if you haven’t twigged, let me fill you in.  Ablutions satisfactorily performed, the reverse operation of moving back from a wobbly seat into wheelchair has been completed, and the final stage of getting ready to meet my audience is in progress … the adjustment of my lingerie … or as Steve and James would say – my Bridget Jones’s or for us rather well endowed females the good old fashioned control brief.   Just as this most personal of tasks is being finished the toilet door opens without warning.  “CLOSE THE B***** DOOR” come the screams from inside the loo!!

In fairness to the Toilet Supervisor, who probably wouldn’t know what Thalidomide was, let alone be able to spell it, it’s not her fault that she opened the door whilst I am in such a compromising position, but do people have to be so rude, as to not realise that if a person is using an accessible toilet, there is more than a distinct possibility that they will take a bit longer than the users of the regular facilities.  If only.

Door closed, and clothes suitably adjusted, I morph into Disability Champion mode.  With my haughtiest of demeanours, I leave the toilet determined to illicit even the slightest apology from those waiting to use the facilities.      Not likely … With attitude that would put the stroppiest of teenagers to shame, there is not a hint of remorse for the aggravation caused.  What makes it all the more galling, is that on a scale of 1 to 10, I would put their need to use an accessible toilet at -5!!  (Now before you start accusing me of being discriminatory, I am fully aware that accessible toilets are not exclusively there for wheelchair users, any number of disabled people might have continence issues, or may require more space, assistance, or extra time to use facilities (like myself).  But, someone who can walk, could actually use a regular toilet, wheelchair users do not have the luxury of this choice!)

Enough is enough, and with less than an hour to get to our destination, do I go straight back to the car … I certainly do not.  Powering off in the direction of the shop that sells everything your kids really don’t need for a long car journey, I find the site Manager.  I vent my anger at the indignity of what has happened, and I even make him lock himself in the toilet in question, whilst another member of his staff opens the door, for greater dramatic effect.  Tempting as it was, you will be relieved to know that I didn’t insist on him sitting on the loo with his trousers round his ankles just to prove a point!

The problem is, this doesn’t just happen on motorway service areas.  Only two weeks ago, Steve and I were in Devon, and having decided that the public loos were simply too gross to contemplate, we headed for the safe haven that is known as Debenhams.  Trading for over 200 years, surely we could use the loo in that giant of retail institutions in relative peace?  Alas no, our use of these facilities was marred by a perfectly formed queue of non-disabled people, who were just too lazy to walk around the corner to use the male and female facilities, banging on the toilet door, in an even more impatient manner than at the motorway service area; My gosh, did they have the wrath of my tongue after I had finished using the loo.

Most of the accessible toilets require the use of a key (The National Key Scheme (NKS) was developed because some public toilets designed for disabled people had to be locked to prevent damage and misuse. This has been countered by their being locked separately from other toilets.). Most permanently disabled people, like me, have one of these keys. However, there are an increasing number of people who don’t actually purchase one of these keys but borrow one from the facility provider (i.e. motorway service, cinema, restaurant etc).  When these individuals decide that you are taking too long whilst using the facility, they go and get a member of staff (yes… The Toilet Supervisor), who apparently has an override key!  Personally, I am not sure if there is such thing as an override key, or whether the lock in question is broken.

Either way, this ‘Catch a disabled person in a compromising position’ game is happening on a more frequent basis and all over the country, people are opening the toilet door whilst I am using it GRRRRRRRRRR.

Now I’m not usually in the habit of naming and shaming – but what the heck … Be wary, if attending a concert at the O2, or a rugby match at the Millennium Stadium, if you are travelling along the M4 motorway and have to use the accessible facilities at the Reading East Moto service area, or in the Debenhams Torquay branch, because visitors to these illustrious venues do not have any patience.

However, as luck would have it on the last occasion … I had the last laugh – and you’ll enjoy this …

I used up the last of the loo roll ……

Ah, divine retribution!

Writing this blog has inspired me to make a new notice, which I shall carry around with me and blue tack it to the door when I am using an accessible toilet – what you think?

POLITE NOTICE FOR TOILETS

Happy summer holidays.  Happy travelling, but beware the queue for the accessible loo.  You never know, you might find me on the other side of the door!

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FOUR FINGERS AND THIRTEEN TOES – Time for a Festive Grumble – Before going off for a Jive

December 15, 2014
Stephen as a Storm Trooper!

Stephen as a Storm Trooper!

Here we are, less than 2 weeks before the “big day” and instead of sipping mulled wine whilst giving orders to my little elf (otherwise known as Stephen) who should have been busily wrapping parcels, we embarked on a rather hectic visit to London; I then had preliminary rehearsals for a variety show, in which I’m performing; and, added to that I have been trying to complete a commissioned painting in time to be delivered as a Christmas present!

However, all of this palled into insignificance by the latest debacle against Disabled People as reported in the media last week.  Three senior Court of Appeal judges – Lady Justice Arden, Lord Justice Lewison and Lord Justice Underhill, overturned a landmark court ruling from September 2014, making it a breach of the Equality Act 2010, for bus drivers to refuse to insist that a mother with a pushchair should leave the designated wheelchair space to make way for a wheelchair user.

The ruling overturned an award to Doug Paulley, a disabled man, of £5,500 damages after he was unable to board a bus because the designated wheelchair space was already occupied by a pram.  It seems the bus driver had asked the child’s mother to make space for the wheelchair user.  She refused.  Apparently, the buggie did not fold down and she wanted to avoid waking her sleeping child.

We are now faced with a situation where the very equalities legislation that was designed to provide Disabled People with a level playing field, has, in this instance, demoted us to the status of second-class citizens.

The implications of the above appeal ruling, is likely to have the effect of dissuading wheelchair users from using public transport, for fear of being left sitting at bus stops for hours on end.

This is already the situation for many wheelchair users trying to use public transport; but now that these incredibly educated judges have effectively stated that mothers with buggies or prams can take precedence over wheelchair users in terms of occupying the designated wheelchair space.  This, sadly, makes a mockery of our disability legislation.

In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act 1990 is much stronger than our initial 1995 Disability Discrimination Act, and in most parts of America it has been enforced with vigour. Personally, unless I was absolutely desperate, I would not even bother to wait at a bus stop in the UK for a bus with a vacant designated wheelchair space to take me to my destination.

However, on two previous occasions, Stephen, myself and James have travelled the length and breadth of New York on buses. This might potentially have been a logistical nightmare for two wheelchair users, and a young fit son.  However, fear not, it does not matter where a wheelchair user is in the queue, New Yorkers encourage you to go to the front; and when the bus pulls up, the driver allows alighting passengers off.  The difference between the UK and America is obvious at this point.   Before any embarking passengers are allowed to get onto the bus, the driver will personally assist the wheelchair user to their designated space, strap you into position within an inch of your life, and then allow the other passengers on. If there is somebody standing, a suitcase, shopping bags, buggies and or prams with or without babies in the designated wheelchair space, they will be moved. Nobody argues with the driver!

Whilst on the subject of transport, I have constantly found it difficult to find reliable taxi drivers that you can trust to turn up as and when you want them (at whatever time of the day or night), with vehicles in which you can travel safely.

There was one exception here in Cardiff.  One wonderful taxi driver that I did come to know and trust with my life, he was the kindest driver I have ever met.  I would travel with him on a regular basis (sometimes into the early hours after a night out with my girlfriends) – and he never let me down.  Sadly, Howard passed away over two years ago, and I have not used a taxi since.

On the railways, I can apparently travel from Cardiff Central to London and remain in my wheelchair, in whatever class carriage I choose. However, spontaneity is out of the question … I have to book one of the very precious designated wheelchair spaces three days in advance, and ensure that a message has been forwarded to all stationmasters along the route, in particular to the station at which I need help to get off the train.  Consequently, the last time I travelled on a train in the UK was the early 1980s, and in the salubrious surroundings of the guards van.  Four years ago however, without hindrance or prior arrangement I travelled the trains and subway in New York.

You will have by now gathered that I firmly believe we need enforceable legislation here in the UK, which has real bite!

As for airline travel – don’t get me started.  All I will say is that the amount of support you receive will vary from airport to airport and from airline to airline.  It is equally frustrating and costly and you are constantly worried about your wheelchair being damaged. Reassurance can make or break an aeroplane journey and, having been unfortunate enough to have both manual and powered chairs damaged in transit, I can tell you that airlines and baggage handlers could do with some disability awareness and equality training – not from some non-disabled person pretending to “come fly with me” – but from real people with real experiences.

I, and many other Disability Rights Campaigners, have fought for years for equality for Disabled People. We were part way there when the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was passed. Flawed as it was, at least we had some kind of legal clout, despite the fact that the word “reasonable” was peppered throughout the legislation.  The problem with “reasonable” is that it is very subjective, and differs from person to person.  However, at least with the legislation, we were able to open up dialogue and help many organisations introduce best practice to their service provision and business operations.

The disability rights campaign was the last of the civil rights movements – Gender and Race has long been legislated upon.  We were still in our infancy when the Government, in its infinite wisdom, decided to amalgamate all equality issues into one single piece of legislation – the Equality Act 2010.  Many equality campaigners (including me) predicted that this would be the demise of disability rights. Indeed the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater and disability rights have fallen to the bottom of the equality agenda.

Hate crime towards disabled people has increased; essential disability benefits have been cut; essential practical support enabling disabled people to work and or be educated have been slashed; and vital positive legislative rulings enabling disabled people to move forward, have been overturned on the whim of non-disabled legal personnel devoid of common sense.

So, whilst I am having a good moan, I would like to take a swipe at those companies out there who make a lot of money on the back of the situation in which disabled people find themselves. I’m specifically talking about the companies who provide essential equipment for disabled people, particularly electric powered wheelchairs.

I’d like to tell you about a dream I had the other night.  In the dream I was being taught to dance the jive – specifically the Jive(R) in a Sunrise Medical wheelchair.  Curious? Well read on.

I have used electric powered wheelchairs since I was about nine years old, and Steve has used a powered chair for nearly ten years. Up until now I have always been an advocate of Sunrise Medical powered chairs.  My first was the innovative manual to powered F15, followed by two consecutive F55’s which were strong and robust.

However, the problem comes when you want to replace a well worn F55, and find that this trusted product is no longer manufactured.  For some unearthly reason, the alternatives on offer are named after a variety of Latin dances … Salsa, Jive, Hula, Rumba … You get the drift!  Conversely, I suppose that a Sunrise wheelchair called Foxtrot, Waltz or American Smooth, just doesn’t send the right product advertising messages for a go-getting corporation that services a world-wide market in powered chairs.

Unfortunately, our chosen alternative to the sturdy and reliable F55 proved rather less than a racy and raunchy Latin dance, but more a clumpy mobility version of Ann Widdecombe and John Sergeant combined.

I could go on forever telling you our saga of such a dreadful product – but Steve is still wrapping presents, and the X Factor is blaring away in the background – so I will simply say that after more than six months of aggravation; an engineer bordering on moving in (as he spent more time in our house than he did at his own); a rather fraught visit to the Sunrise manufacturing hub in the West Midlands (where we discovered that patience and understanding are left firmly locked in the time clock, when the Sunrise shop floor workers clock on); Senior  company management  demonstrating a complete disregard for Sunrise customers, (to the extent that even when they are presented with irrefutable evidence of a product so wanting in quality) that they did not have the decency to acknowledge receipt of email communication.  Maybe they should revisit their professed “Corporate Responsibility” as it is so eloquently quoted on the Sunrise website…

“At Sunrise Medical, we’re not only focused on improving people’s lives, but also the way we do business. Whether it’s being respectful of our environment, contributing to the communities in which we operate in or empowering our employees to think and act in a responsible way – managing our business in a responsible way is important to everyone at Sunrise Medical.”

Steve’s chair was returned, as not fit for purpose.  Fortunately, his saviour came in the form of a Meyra iChair MC3, from our trusted regular wheelchair maintenance company – Hereford Mobility Centre – who supplied a rather nifty black and white version which we have nick-named the “Storm Trooper”.  So, to lighten this blog, I am posting a picture of Steve, in his own inimitable way, modelling his very own little Storm Trooping wheelchair.

For me, I am still plodding on with my JiveR.  Currently I have had the controller and tyres replaced, had to have the arms on the chair fabricated in a stronger fashion, and even then, we have resorted to duct tape to keep a number of nuts and bolts in place!  The only reason I am putting up with this is that I am not particularly disposed to the idea of sitting in a Storm Trooper – Princess Leia I am not!

It still seems that even in these supposed enlightened times, particularly in terms of the provision of goods and services for Disabled People, society generally, providers of goods and services, and the Government are doing a disservice to Disabled People. I can put it no clearer than just to say … “two steps forward and five steps back”.

Yet again disabled people will need to rise up and fight for our rights.  We need separate, clear and enforceable Disability Equality Legislation.

Phew … Rant over.   So all I need to do now is wish you a very happy and peaceful Christmas holiday, and to everyone – regardless of gender, race, religion or disability – I hope you have a New Year that brings empowerment and success in equal measures.

FOUR FINGERS AND THIRTEEN TOES – UNIVERSITY CHALLENGE

September 30, 2013
Another fine mess...

Another fine mess…

It’s really quiet in the house at the moment. I don’t mean quiet because we are all working really hard … but because we have just completed the University Challenge.

As I sit at my computer writing this blog, James will have finished his first day of University lectures, and I can reflect on twelve months that have been satisfying and challenging in equal measures.

I can’t quite believe that it was last September when we joined the University applications treadmill. Firstly there was the acquisition of The Times Good University Guide; working out that we could discount a visit to Oxford and Cambridge and then getting wholly realistic about the best Universities for photography. I really wouldn’t have believed it could be so difficult to narrow the choice down, but as James had already decided his final choices would be loosely based on or close to a main motorway corridor, it made the exercise a little easier. From Exeter to Manchester and Swansea to London, the list was slowly whittled down until five possible locations were agreed.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I think the weather makes a difference as to how you see a place. So, here’s a brief meteorological summary of the places we visited. Bristol was bright and breezy; Newport was nice (it doesn’t always rain in Wales); Roehampton was rainy – and I mean wet; Cardiff was close (far too close to home) and Southampton was snowy.

For any readers who may be embarking on a similar merry-go-round with your soon to be independent offspring, be warned … once you have done one open day, the rest will be guaranteed to be a clone of the first. With hindsight, we should have realised that all the Universities are interested in are bums on seats, and so the open days are really nothing more than a selling opportunity. There is also a limit as to how often you can espouse the virtues of the Student halls of residence. I mean, if you put the Hotel Inspector into these baron concrete blocks that pass for somewhere to live, I am quite convinced she would have a serious rant. What would she make of magnolia walls, and fixtures and fittings that are so minimalist that even those who love Bauhaus or Philipe Starck would find it hard to find positives out of Formica and vinyl.

Making all the right noises is paramount; even if you are secretly wishing you’d bought a winning lottery ticket the week before, and then you could install your little darling in moderate comfort rather than condemning them to 41 weeks in Prison Cell Block H.

However, enough of my maternal self pity. After the open days and the relevant selections made, the “send” button was pushed with gusto. Then all we had to do was sit back and wait for the UCAS offers to start arriving.

Interviews were completed in the few months thereafter, and offers were then received and final choices had to be made. Now, this is where it starts to get tricky. The battle between parental practicality and student stupidity is a tough one. How do you reconcile the hottest female totty and the hippest nightclub with the best darkroom and digital suite? Yes, it’s a no-brainer really, and the balancing of compromise brought a solution that was just about acceptable to new student and the cash cow that is the bank of Mum and Dad.

And so fast-forward to results day. Our email inboxes were bursting with messages from chosen Universities saying “don’t worry if your results are not quite what you expected” (what a confidence boost!) – to be interpreted as being we still need your bum on our seat and we’ll bend over backwards to get you there. A quick early morning phone call from one of my dearest friends to say the UCAS system had gone live and there it was, a message to say “Congratulations, your place at Southampton Solent for photography has been confirmed”

All those days and nights of nagging to get as much revision as possible done before it was too late, had paid off. And, in an instant I had become the mother of a soon-to-be student.

After the flurry of obligatory texts and phone calls, father and son then had to sit down and organise accommodation – The sentence of 41 weeks in Prisoner Cell Block H had been handed down. Two hours after they went into Steve’s office, James emerged – a shadow of his former self – I gather in typical Stephen fashion, James was given chapter and verse from the University website as to what he could and couldn’t do in halls. Rumpole was happy, satisfied that our budding Mario Testino wouldn’t have anything hotter than an a fiery pepperoni pizza in his room, when all James was interested in, was how many crates of beer we could get in the car to get him through Fresher’s Week.

Our next big challenge was to amass the stuff which we are told students simply cannot live without – Beer and, well more beer. Internet research suggested that apart from beer there were other more mundane items which would make life in cells (no, sorry – I mean halls) more comfortable.

At this stage, I have to just digress a little. My lovely hubby is a great believer in lists. We have a holiday list, which from underwear to umbrellas has never failed us when we go away, and so it seemed only logical that a list should be prepared to gather what would be needed for University life.

After making up the list, Steve decided that we would turn the living room into an Amazon warehouse, and the room would be split into sections – Studying, Kitchen, Bedroom, Enjoyment and Fun.

Now, just take a look at the list. What does the order of priority tell you about the man to whom I have been married for longer than you get for murder? The answer is quite simple, it tells you who the party-lovers are in our house, and so James and I decided priorities needed to be changed … Enjoyment and Fun, Kitchen, Bedroom and Studying … now that’s more like University life!

Over the following few weeks, “the list” did work wonders. Woks and pots, Beer and more beer, Bedding and towels, and oh yes, study equipment soon swamped the room. I couldn’t go in there without dissolving into tears, and Steve just became increasingly concerned about whether the credit card had reached breaking point.
However, by some miracle everything on the list got ticked off, and we were ready to go. The general idea, was to pack as much of the luggage into the car as we could the day before James was due to fly the nest, and that would just leave a few bits and pieces which would fit in after we had loaded the wheelchairs.

Our last supper was over and all that was left was to get an early night for the long journey the next day. They do say the best laid plans go awry, and with us that is certainly true. An arrival slot between 2 and 4.30pm had been booked for halls, but as is usually the case, we were late leaving home. The main problem was that the car hadn’t been packed the night before; and James had much more stuff than we expected. I had to get into the car about 45 minutes before we were due to leave, so that all the rest of the bags and luggage could be strategically packed around me.

Off we eventually went, and decided that a motorway stop for lunch would be a good idea. When we pulled up at the service area, I swear that the people around us thought we were setting up camp. It did look as though we were part of the anti-fracking campaign which was taking place near our destination. Out came one wheelchair, then a collection of bags and bedding before I emerged, a bit like Lady Gaga bursting out of an oversized birthday cake, concentrating on one thing – no, not the thought of an M&S sandwich and a latte, but – whether the accessible loo which doubles as a baby changing station would free!

Sandwiches eaten and latte drunk, we got back in the car, and joined the throng of commuter traffic travelling towards the south coast. Nearly five hours after we left home we arrived at the halls and it looked like a ghost town. As we were almost two hours over our expected arrival time, most organised parents had been and gone, and (I have no doubt) their once angelic offspring were planning their first binge of Fresher’s in the closest pub they could find.

Joking apart, the student members of the residence team were great. As soon as they realised that James had arrived with two “extras” from Casualty, they set to and helped unload the car. We then discovered there was a step into Block C (it was such a pity it couldn’t have been Block H) and one of the residence team used his initiative and went off and returned with a table top which he fashioned into a makeshift ramp. Who says all students leave their brains behind when they leave home!

However, by the time the car was in a sufficient state of unload that I could get out, James’ appointed cell – no, sorry bedroom – was full, and I mean FULL! Think Stan Laurel standing in the middle of a room, in a complete state of chaos, scratching the top of his head, and you will get a general picture of James during the first 30 minutes in his new home for the next 41 weeks.

I gallantly refrained from blubbering (until out of site), whilst we decided that short of blocking up the whole of the corridor watching James shift boxes from one part of the room to another, there was little we could do to help.

Having said a quick hello to some of his flatmates, we left them with the conundrum that is Rosie and Stephen, as we said our goodbyes and my “little Solider” was deposited there and ready to start his new life.

We’ve just had our first full weekend of Rosie and Steve time for 18 years. Steve can’t find enough washing to do, he hasn’t yet mastered making dinner for two, and keeps on wanting to tidy up – but the problem is, there no messy teenager to clean up after.

There is one small consolation … I have taken ownership of the Sky remote, and am indulging my passion for all the programmes that I like on TV. Steve is not so keen on grisly television, and has been demoted to the kitchen, but has confessed that Strictly come Dancing by subtitles does have its drawbacks!

And finally, just to let you know, we had a phone call last night from a student who is suffering from Fresher’s flu, but who is looking forward to the challenges of his course. Orders of priority have changed and we were consigned to being slotted between a vegetable stir fry and a trip to the pub.

Whether he’ll have the same outlook on University life after a long day of lectures – only time will tell. But, at least for the moment, it’s good to know that (H)alls well that ends well!

FOUR FINGERS AND THIRTEEN TOES – HORSING AROUND

March 6, 2013
Steve and his Chaos in the kitchen at Christmas

Steve and his Chaos in the kitchen at Christmas

On 1st March I was privileged to attend the National St. David’s Day celebration in Cardiff. At the after-service reception the subject of Welsh foodie delicacies cropped up. Amongst many, Welsh cakes and Welsh Rarebit seemed to top the poll of welsh delights.

This got me thinking about the origins of Welsh food, and why certain dishes are called what they are.

For example, Welsh Rarebit has nothing to do with rabbits, and there are doubts as to whether it originated in Wales. One theory suggests that way back in the 17th century a “poor man’s” meat in England was rabbit. In Wales, where “poor men” simply couldn’t afford meat, they resorted to cheese, and as a result some “taffy” or another conjured up the name for a snack which we in Wales love.

As for Welsh cakes, we adore them. Sugared, stodgy and yummy. If you ever come to Cardiff, try the ones from the Victorian Market. The best in town and its reputation has now stretched to Hampshire. On the other side of the Severn Bridge there is a far more formal “take” on the recipe. The less, stodgy and less sugary English version is the scone. However, back to Welsh cakes … It seems our friends (with Welsh heritage) in Patagonia have a different perspective on this particular piece of “Welshness”. They say that back in 1865 when a number of Welsh settlers started to build new lives for themselves, they struggled to find food that would sustain them in lean times. So, they mixed together brown sugar, sweetened nuts and fruit to make a cake of strength, and one that would last once cooked. In Patagonia, the Welsh cake is also considered significant for newlyweds. Tradition has it that the bottom tier of the wedding cake is made of Welsh cake. After the wedding, the other tiers of the cake are eaten, but the bottom layer is wrapped up and the newlyweds eat a slice of the cake every month for the first year of marriage to give them the fortitude to survive the trials and tribulations of married life.

Where is this taking us? Well, apart from having a burning desire, right now, to have a coffee and a Welsh cake, it got me thinking about how cooking skills and techniques develop as time goes by.

Way back when, in 1988, Steve appointed himself as official food shopper for our household. That was OK, but his way of shopping bore no relation to how we had shopped when I lived at home. Before we got married, my idea of shopping, was to trundle off to the local shop with my PA; get a loaf of bread, a tin of soup, a packet of biscuits and a few other essential ingredients – such as meat (no horse of course!) to make sure I could live, if not quite like a queen, then as close as you could – bearing in mind the varying level of cooking skills that (over the years) my PA’s have demonstrated.

I can still remember the day that Steve returned from his first “married” shopping trip … having spent two hours wandering around the supermarket, returning with provisions that would have seen us through a nuclear war, let alone a month. But who was I to argue. In came bread, butter, meat, vegetables, tins, biscuits, more biscuits and even more biscuits … you get the drift on his priorities. I have to admit the system worked, and we never did run out of food, but what he did with all the carrots he bought continues to be a source of intrigue to me. I can only think they did some good, as he has only recently conceded that his 20-20 vision isn’t quite what it was.

However, buying wine was another thing entirely. Coming from a good Welsh Presbyterian background, he was hardly likely to be a fine wine connoisseur, but when he proudly announced we were going to host a dinner party for his senior partner, and other office colleagues, I did start to wonder whether I should take responsibility for the wine ordering. Having fixed a date for the meal, decided upon the menu, and organised the dining room table, all that was left to do, was the shopping. Off to the supermarket Steve went, armed with a list of ingredients for the meal, and with firm instructions on what wine to buy. Now just remember that at this time, here was a man who couldn’t tell a Merlot from a Muscadet. Disaster was bound to loom. I did wonder whether I should have gone to the shops myself, but when you have to impress your senior partner, there is nothing for it, but to let the captain of his sinking ship stay to the bitter end.

An hour or so later, Marco Pierre White returned. Armed with everything that would make the evening go with plenty of joie de vie, Steve was confident that his future in the practice was secure. However, when I enquired as to how he had chosen the wine, the reply floored even me. “I liked the look of the label” was the chirpy response. Too late to do anything other than see his professional development go down the drain, rather like the plonk that had been bought, we got ready for the evening. The guests duly arrived and we proceeded to dinner. In fairness to Steve, the meal was really rather good and the evening was a great success. However, the funniest thing of all was the wine choice. Apparently 1988 was a good year for Bulgarian Merlot, and what came home from the Supermarket? Yes, a generous number of bottles of Bulgarian Merlot over which Mr. Williams (the senior partner) raved. Career intact, Steve decided to keep one of the bottles for posterity. He suggested we open it on our 25th Wedding Anniversary. Well, that significant date looms in September, and the only remaining bottle of 1988 Merlot continues to sit in our wine store. I hardly want to burst his bubble, but the bottle which so saved his career is about as past its sell-by-date as the man who bought it 25 years ago!

This quite neatly brings me onto the subject, more generally, of food.

In the early years of married life, we both worked long hours. Usually I got home before Steve, and supervised the PA’s in getting our evening meal. I shan’t labour some of the tasteless delights that emerged from our kitchen, but these palled into insignificance when I think of the cake and pastry delights that my lunchtime PA could conjure up in an hour. However, on a Saturday that changed. If we weren’t going out, then Steve would take charge in the kitchen. As you know from Four Fingers and Thirteen Toes, we are partial to a Chinese takeaway, but Steve would also quite willingly wield the saucepans and create some dish which usually involved a sauce. He likes his sauces, and it is only recently I have plucked up the courage to tell him how awful they were in those heady days of lust and love!

Thankfully, things have improved, and to give you an idea of just how far I have brought my own “master chef”, I have to take you back to a time just before we got married. “I’ll cook you tea” was the offer one day. Well, there was nothing for it; I would have to try his cooking at some stage, so I thought I’d just as well “try before I buy”! What was the menu I hear you ask … Beef burgers and chips (now you see the horse connection…!). This, in itself wouldn’t have been too bad, but beef burger cooked in a microwave (arhhhhhh!) Well, I ate, I digested and went to the loo just as soon as I could. Apparently, a meal of beef burgers and chips was the regular dinner for a busy lawyer – especially on a Monday – prepared just in time for Coronation Street. What an exciting life he led before he found me!

Having poked fun at the male cookery skills in our house, it is only right I tell you about my own culinary demons. Again, many years ago, some well meaning social worker decided that I would benefit from domestic training at Rookwood Hospital Cardiff, where they are able to assess whether you need any special equipment to live independently. Off I went, and cooked a cake … all by myself. I made such a mess with the flour that my black hair looked curiously like a Cruella De Vil hairstyle on a bad day, and as for the cake, can I just say that at the time we were having a new wall built, and it is no understatement to say that the bricks from the wall, were softer than my cake!

No more cooking for me – Phew! Instead it was decided that I would supervise from the safety of the other side of the kitchen. Slowly, oh so slowly, Steve was weaned off microwave beef burgers, and encouraged to use a cookery book – not just to fill out the shelves on the kitchen units, but use to them properly. Out went Microwave Cooking for Dummies, and in came 1001 Recipes for Idiots. Just what was needed!

A few wine tasting evenings, care of the Porthcawl Lions Club, meant Steve was confidently able to identify the difference between Chardonnay and Chablis and even Alberino from Asti Spumante.

But, it is only right that you don’t get completely the wrong idea of what goes on in our kitchen. Since those dark days of long ago, my “little chef” has become something of a “whizz” at conjuring up all manner of tasty delights. Thai, Italian, Chinese to name but a few and of course the traditional Sunday roast. What he can’t do with a punnet of strawberries and a generous helping of Tia Maria is nobody’s business, and his Christmas Eve meal for anyone who wants to join us, has become the stuff of legend!

However, every now and again he does fall off the wagon. Somehow burgers do find their way back onto the BBQ menu, but at least they are cooked over the coals rather than in microwaves. And, with the best intentions in the world, the wine choice still causes ripples of amusement. As an example, the favoured white for our last Christmas Eve meal was… Flip Flop (!) Asked why this particular choice was made, the answer was “Well, it reminded me of the summer and the Olympics” Did it make him legless? I’ll let you decide, but please, no “Oscar P” jokes!

I’m just waiting with eager anticipation to see whether I will be favoured with Bollinger or Baby Cham on Mother’s Day. It’s a good job that James will be 18 in a couple of months time, and hopefully my “wine worries” will be over. Then, he can be responsible for showing his Dad some real wine!

And so, where do I end? There appears to be a noise in the kitchen as I write. Can I allow my mind to wander to a place where Thai fish curry or mixed salad and smoked salmon will greet me at the dinner table? Sadly no … it’s Wednesday, and the chef has the night off. Thank goodness the Pen-y-Lan fish shop has a menu to suit even the fussiest of eaters. However, there is always tomorrow, and I hear rumblings of a steak and ale pie – Now we’re talking … Move over the hairy bikers as my own little four-wheeled wok-wizard will soon be back in action, and I can’t wait!

FOUR FINGERS AND THIRTEEN TOES – Dear Kate, Tempus Fugit … It really does

December 5, 2012

OMG!! The beginning of December and here we are on the round of festive greetings, shopping for all and sundry and probably spending far too much in the process. But, what wonderful news … we are all expecting a royal baby next summer. And I do mean “all” for we shall all share in every expanding inch in the development of the newest member of the Royal Family. Most of us will sympathise with the Duchess of Cambridge for having the news of her pregnancy announced in the way it was. No glorious fanfare to herald in the new year, but a rather hasty announcement, marked by the decampment of the world’s press (for goodness knows how long) to a hospital somewhere in central London … I bet Starbucks are rubbing their hands in glee!

With this in mind, I simply couldn’t miss an opportunity to cheer you all up, amid your Christmas preparation with a little blog designed to help the Duchess wile away the time she still has, until she has no time to herself!

Like I said, the announcement, and its manner was really unfortunate. I bet the Catherine Walker dress was all lined up for a suitable photo shoot and then we would have gone into overdrive as to the most suitable maternity gear for our future Queen. However, I am just glad they didn’t take up the invitation of Mat and Alex on BBC’s the One Show, and send a camera phone picture of them snuggled up with a pizza; and a slogan which said something like “Wills and Kate have managed to mate”!

How I well remember the moment when the line turned blue in my pregnancy test; and the look on Steve’s face when he realised his dream of ever owning an expensive car had disappeared in the hazy mist of a Chinese takeaway and an early night!

I read in the newspapers this week that all the female editors of ladies magazines knew straight away that something was up when Kate changed her hairstyle – Does that woman ever have a bad hair day!

The tell tale signs for me, were slightly more boring. No change of hairstyle, I just gave up the cigarettes and alcohol. Now for an Irish Catholic family that must have been a dead giveaway.

So, fast-forward to the latter stages of pregnancy and the obligatory anti-natal classes. Ours were held in the hospital about five minutes from where we lived. Therefore arriving for the first (and possibly the most important) class should have been a piece of cake. It would have been, but for one thing. In those days, Steve worked about 30 miles away, and try as he might, he could never get away from work and home on time for anything.

Before I continue with the anti-natal class story, I have to digress – It is relevant, especially as the Christmas party season is fast approaching. In the early 1990s, a certain 70’s pop star had made a successful comeback, complete with all his glitter (need I say more), and I had booked tickets for an arena concert to kick start our Christmas festivities. I was home from work, dressed and ready to go by 6.30pm but there was no sign of Steve. The show was due to start at 7.30pm and allowing time to park the car, we needed to be on our way by no later than 6.45pm.

Steve arrived at 6.40pm blustering profuse apologies for being late, and explaining that some emergency application had to be made to the Court. He threw a cup of tea down his neck, and without time to change we waltzed off into town.

Picture the scene, 3000 glitter wigs and more spandex than you could throw at Abba, and Steve … all togged up in his work suit! James reckons Steve was born with a briefcase in his hand, and looking back, I can just see why he gets that impression. Plonked on a seat at the back of Cardiff’s International Arena, and well out of his comfort zone, I decided that there was no option but to leave Mr. Conventional and launch myself into the sea of glitter and merriment. I returned two hours later to find Steve pretty much where I had left him, but with the addition of a glitter hat, and copious amounts of lipstick on his face after being attacked by some over-excited 30-something women, who apparently went wild for men in suits! As for me, I was happily contented that the (fallen) star in question had asked “D’you wanna be in my gang”. Phew. Am I now glad I didn’t say yes!

But back to the anti-natal classes. 1995 was a hot summer, and yes, you’ve guessed it Steve was late … again. By this stage of pregnancy, I was contented wearing floral dresses that flattered my ever expanding girth, and looking forward to an evening of relaxing meditation. Beware expectant mothers reading this blog – the reality is far from the dream (Branwen you have been warned!). On this occasion, Steve managed to have his tea, but again didn’t have time to change. Minus the jacket, but with shirt and tie in situ, we legged it (excuse the pun!) off to the maternity department. The first problem was getting into the building. Everything was security locked. From the outside, Steve managed to locate the room in which the class was being held. He attracted the attention of some bronzed Adonis of an expectant father, who kindly obliged and opened the door. The sight that awaited us in the room, was of various shapes and sizes but all with a common bump … and then we arrived.

Those of you who know Steve, will understand when I say getting on the floor was always going to be challenge, and to this day, I do not know what possessed him, but he decided to avoid the floor and sit on a pile of springy rubber mats. Not a good idea when you have a full complement of legs, but when you don’t there is only one result. Steve sat down, the mats went up in the air, and he ended up in a heap on the floor, with me cringing at the thought of my moment of anti-natal glory forever scarred with this memory. Still, I consoled myself with the fact that things couldn’t get any worse. The lesson eventually started and having completed a session of relaxation, it was time for a break. The mother superior, or should I say the anti-natal nurse said we could all go and have some Squash for a small charge. Squash!!!! My old man needed something far stronger than Squash after the effort it took to get him off the floor, but Squash it had to be. Back-track to when we left the house. Late as usual, and with the suit jacket left in the kitchen we didn’t have a bean to bless ourselves with! A saviour came in the form a lycra-clad angel, who ended up having her baby on exactly the same day that James arrived. Oh don’t you just hate those people who look good in lycra with an enormous bump out front. The class finished, we bundled ourselves into the car, and made a sharp exit from the hospital – only to see said lycra mum power walking up the road … Ahhhhh! After that, we made sure we were on time for the classes, Steve tried not to fall asleep in meditation, and we always had change for the Squash.

If Kate (by some small miracle) happens to be reading this blog, the next bit of advice is crucial. Just make sure you are nowhere near electricity when your waters break. Me? I had a lucky escape. I had just waddled onto the loo when the whoosh occurred. I was about five seconds away from a curly perm courtesy of an electric wheelchair. Our family seem to have a thing about electric wheelchairs and water – not a good combination.

So, the Cambridge’s will settle into a cosy life with Nannies and servants. Entertaining the little one/ones will be a breeze, just as it was for me. James loved books. His favourite game was to look at the books I gave him, promptly throw them out of his pram and then look quizzically at me when they weren’t retrieved. However, I can’t forget the occasion that my Mother’s help had left for the day, and James was (at that time) sleeping contentedly in his play nest. Not 30 minutes after Anne left, he woke up and decided to bring the house down. Even my singing (I could do it reasonably well in those days) wouldn’t pacify him. There was nothing for it. With child screaming wildly in the kitchen I made for the living room. I did think about stopping off at the drinks cabinet, but motherly instinct took over. I bounced from my chair onto the sofa, rolled from the sofa onto the floor, and managed to get from the living room back into the kitchen. Within seconds the little **** had fallen asleep, leaving me propped up against a play nest for the next couple of hours until Steve came home. I cannot help but laugh as I recall the look on Steve’s face, when he saw us both on the floor surrounded by the devastation that was the afternoon play session.

The new arrival will progress to playing in the garden, and that is good fun. We are blessed that James is so patient – perhaps not so much these days, but back in the days of doing what you are told, he was pretty good at alternative sport. The best alternative game had to be mop football. The rules are quite simple. All you need is a little toddler, and football net in the garden, a mother wielding a floor mop and you have a recipe for an instantly satisfying afternoon. The mop was designed to stop the ball going into the net, but when the cute little one soon twigged that if Mum’s hands are full with the mop handle, she can’t move her chair to stop the ball going into the back of the net, our future David Beckham was never going to miss a free kick.

Snow was always good fun too, and so it will be with Wills and Kate. Back in the days when Steve was still able to get about quite well, we had our first fall of snow when James was about two. Excitedly father and son got togged up in winter woollies and gingerly staggered to the snowiest part of the garden. “Bigger Daddy” was the cry as oxygen was needed to make a ball of snow big enough to even resemble a snowman’s body, rather than an obese snowball. When the bonding session was over, I swear even the Borrowers would have been bigger than the snowman that adorned our patio for all of two hours before it collapsed in a very slushy pile, complete with branches for arms. Ironically the branches had two little twiglets sprouting from each side. “It looks just like Mummy” was the declaration as the wellies were deposited by the front door. Was my child seriously suggesting that I looked like a huge ball of soggy cotton wool? Please, do not answer that one!

Then there will be the family photographs. Of course there will be the pitfall of making the little one look in the right direction at the right time, but I am sure the Royal photographer will be able to cope. Who knows, the photographer may even be one James Moriarty-Simmonds of JMS Photographs fame. Whatever the occasion, the garden will always be the focal point for photographs. The only difference between us and the royals, is the size of the garden and the number of gardeners you have to keep it looking good. First day at school, last day at school. First detention, Last detention and all other occasions in between are recorded in glorious colour in the photograph album. Talking of which, how many people have photograph albums that come to an abrupt end at a crucial developmental stage in a child’s life. I think we have about fifteen years of photos which need to be put into albums in time for the cringe-worthy wedding power point that will run continuously in the background at the reception and embarrass the socks of our once bundle of fun.

Kate and William should not be put off by the financial cost. It does plateau (not sure when – as we haven’t reached that point yet), and of course there will be striking differences. James had his first Reading Festival experience in a tent bought from a budget supermarket, whereas our newest young royal will doubtless enjoy Reading or Glastonbury (or Glasto – as I understand some sets like to call it) in a hand built tepee complete with ensuite for that delicate royal behind.

But, all in all, the most amazing thing is how “Time Flies”. It only seems like yesterday that we made our grand entrance into the anti-natal class, and now we are being hounded to check the UCAS website for progress on university applications and cash for petrol. A little black book has also been opened for the subs.

Would I change anything … Not one dirty smelly nappy of it!! And as I close this blog and look forward to Christmas, I wish the Duke and Duchess the most wonderful time as parents, and may their reflections on parenthood be as wonderful as mine.

Happy Christmas, Joyeux Noël, Feliz Navidad, Glückliches Weihnachten, Gelukkige Kerstmis, Nollaig Shona, Natale Felice, Szczęśliwych świąt Bożego Narodzenia, Счастливое Рождество, Nadolig Hapus, and here’s to a New Year full of fun blogging.

FOUR FINGERS AND THIRTEEN TOES – A summer of LOuVrE

September 4, 2012

It’s been a little while since I updated you on what we in the Moriarty-Simmonds household have been up to, and so with the onset of the darker nights, I thought it about time to tell you about our summer.

It all started well enough.  We managed to get to the end of the summer term, survive the AS exams and then started looking forward to our summer holiday.  At this point, there was a slight problem … No summer holiday booked.  So, in the typically democratic manner which befits most of the decisions made in our house, we had a board meeting. 

The junior partner in our “firm” expressed a desire to spend the whole of the summer in Hampshire, a rural setting which had only one pull (Ahh – the joys of young love!).  That decision was overruled in the most draconian of fashions on the basis that we should at least try and spend some time over the summer as a typical British family – doing typically British holiday things, which of cause is a very subjective viewpoint indeed.

The second in command expressed a desire to spend some time in the sand dunes of an area of the Netherlands called Zeeland.  Now, I have to tell you that in our partnership, two of us have quite a dynamic view of how to spend the ideal holiday and it does not, unless push comes to shove, involve a combination of sand dunes and the North sea – with respect to any of my readers who may either live or frequent the area of the Netherlands of which I am talking!

Option three then came up for consideration – a week in Paris. The City of Love (satisfies junior partner) a little bit of water provided courtesy of the Seine for the second in command and lots of cultural and shopping stuff to appease the senior partner – and you don’t get a prize for guessing who that is.

I have to tell you that the junior and senior partner are not known for travelling light … Make-up for me (well I have to try and keep up with Paris chic) and an abundance of toiletries that would blow a hole in the ozone layer from a million miles for James. Steve has tried to strike a happy medium of taking just enough to last the holiday.  But when he suggested recycling the unmentionables just to save space, I very firmly drew the line.  So, we would take the car.  Bundies, make-up and toiletries galore and everyone was happy.  Our chauffeur however insisted that we find a hotel with on-site parking.  Now that in itself was no easy task at the best of times.  In Paris it is almost impossible, but our ever-trusted travel agent Allison was on hand to sort out the arrangements. 

As an aside, you may remember I told you in a previous Blog that everyone should have a “Dai” – Well add to that everyone should also have an “Allison”.  On that basis, if you have a “Dai” and an “Allison” you simply don’t need a David, Nick, Barrack or even a Tony.  The problems of the whole world would be solved with just these two people.

However back to the summer, and all was not destined to go smoothly before our departure.  The ongoing saga of the lovelorn teenager meant we relented and had a visitor from Hampshire to stay for a few days before we left.  No problem really, but unfortunately, our upstairs bathroom decided to misbehave and spring a leak, very late in the evening, two days before we were due to leave for France.  Well, actually it was more of a tsunami.  It started with a drip, then a bigger drip, and when it became clear (ceiling bulging like a balloon) that there were more than a few spots of water lurking above the plasterboard, Steve decided to have a go at the ceiling with a broom handle.  His theory, the water was better down than up.  Sensible man (well he thought so – and who I am to burst his bubble!).  After he had finished poking holes in the ceiling it looked like a very good impression of a dot-to-dot puzzle, and having satisfied ourselves that most of the water was down, we all trundled off to bed, safe in the knowledge that what would be would be – Que sera sera.  Bad move!

After a restful night’s sleep, we resolved that an early morning would mean we could at least get a plumber to come and fix the leak and then we would sort everything out when we came back from holidays.  However, as you have probably guessed, it wasn’t a plumber that was needed by the time we got up, but rather someone who would obligingly clear up after the ceiling collapsed.  The area around the bay window looked like Bosnia and the rest of the room could well have passed for a Liberian war zone.  Undeterred, our two love birds willingly cleared up the mess and made the room presentable – well at least as presentable as you can with what appears to be an inverted volcano in your ceiling.

A couple of phone calls, a nice plumber and a house secured from further water damage allowed us to look forward to our, now much deserved, break.  Car packed, and off to go.  A short stop at a service area on the M4 to handover one half of the Celtic love spoon; a chat with my friend Tom who has helped me rediscover my love of painting, with an introduction to the Mouth and Foot Painters Association; and then off to Folkestone.  Now it goes without saying that we have never been known for making things easy, and the drive to Paris was no exception.  The journey through France is one that we have made many times, and the auto routes are the most wonderful thing the French have ever invented, aside from croissants.  However, why we decided to enter one of the busiest cities in Europe on the final day of the Tour De France is totally beyond me!!  I was assured to know that Chief Officer of Police had our car details on file, together with the name, driving licence and passport number of our Chauffeur.  I therefore felt safe in the knowledge that Chief Inspector Clouseau would undoubtedly ensure our safe passage through the throng of Bradley Wiggins fans that would be lining the Champs-Élysées. 

However, one coffee too many at the service area, a distinct reluctance by our love birds to be surgically unwrapped from one another, and the switch to European time conspired to ensure that we were entering the “City of Love” when it was getting dark.  Now I really don’t know what happened when Steve fitted the obligatory beam deflectors, but had the light from the headlamps been any dimmer, then our dash across the Place de la Concord would have been even more hairy than it was.  Fortunately, even as our lives flashed before us in the Parisian dusk we were lucky enough not to encounter any ghostly images of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette on their way to the guillotine.  And so, miraculously we arrived at the hotel without hiccup.  Given therefore that all Bradley’s fans did not have the good courtesy to wait for my arrival, the next most pressing problem was finding somewhere to eat.  Alas, Paris is not New York.  It is fair to say that Paris is the city that sleeps – and most certainly on a Sunday!  A charming restaurant a few doors down from the hotel did their best with the time honoured French snack of croque-monsieur, but I have to say it was a long way off what I had imagined our first Parisian meal to be.  But when reminded that if I didn’t have to travel like Prince Charles and take my loo seat everywhere I went, not to mention enough unmentionables to keep the foreign legion satisfied, then we could have quite easily travelled by air, and arrived in time to have a decent meal …  But c’est la vie!

Moving on.  Joy of joys, the next morning saw us eating a proper breakfast.  I looked on in wonder … cheeses, bread, pastries and all those naughty things that really are the nicest.   Memories of the previous night’s croque-monsieur disappeared into a distant fuzzy haze.  And with just the faintest hint of conscience before tackling the feast which awaited me, I consoled myself that if all else failed, Steve and I could take up where those two rotund ladies left off, and we could have our very own daytime television programme … the title?  I saw it in all its jammy glory … “Two Fat Flids.” Conscience satisfied, I thoroughly enjoyed my buns, jam and everything else that my lovely French waiter could give me.  That reminds me, why do I have such a thing about French men? … remember Jean Claude (o-la-la!).

But then, back to earth, the chauffeur had gone off to find the obligatory tourist guide and was determined to make the most of his Parisian experience.  We would go in search of King Bradley’s throne.  Well, actually, we would take a stroll up the Champs-Élysées. 

The French seemed to have no sense of urgency about dismantling the seating and stands that had been erected for the final round of the Tour De France, and so a quiet amble up the widest road in Paris turned out to be the negotiating of an obstacle course that would have been a worthy sport in the London 2012 Paralympic games.  Three quarters the way up, we stopped for a break. Do they have Pimms in Paris?  Not being entirely sure of the reply that came from the waiter, I opted for the safe bet “cafe au lait, s’il vous plait”.  We spent a leisurely hour watching another emerging Olympic sport.  Tourist ten-pin bowling.  We were reliably informed that the object of the game is to see how many tourists (European or Far Eastern – it doesn’t matter) Parisian drivers can knock down whilst they (said tourists) try to get the best photograph of the Arc de Triomphe, without being killed in the process.  Needless to say, our intrepid junior partner decided to have a go, and came out unscathed, and with some jolly good photographs to add to our digital collection of holiday snaps.

Continuing our theme of love, we walked towards the river and left some padlocks on the bridge of love over the Seine, and had a trip up the Eiffel Tower (not all in the same day.  Remember we were on holiday and not training for the marathon).  We did however discover, that to eat lunch before being sent skywards in the Eiffel Tower elevators is not a good idea.   But then, the colour of Steve’s complexion after this episode was nothing compared to the colour of his cheeks after an evening at the famous Lido floorshow. 

Having decided we should introduce James to the delights of French nightlife, the Lido floor show seemed an ideal option.  Tickets ordered, we got all dolled up and decided to walk to the show.  After all, the Champs-Élysées hadn’t seemed that long a few days beforehand.  However, when all togged up in attire rather more formal that chino shorts and a T shirt, I must confess James did suffer. Never mind the cool air conditioned auditorium would sort him out.  Maybe I’m a bit old fashioned, but I had assumed that smart, or at the very least smart casual, would be the order of the day for such an evening.  However, things appear to have changed since our last outing to a Parisian floor show 24 years ago when we were in Paris for our honeymoon.  I have a feeling that the tourists who survived the Tourist ten pin bowling were quickly shunted over the road by their tour guide and into the Lido – It was a kind of a no-man’s land between Butlin’s in September and a Warner’s weekend (strictly for grown-ups). 

The show started and then I noticed a rather puce looking face peering intently towards the stage.  Having never subscribed to any more risqué satellite TV channel than UK TV Style, the sight of scantily clad dancers held a certain fascination to our chauffeur.  I have to say James was coping really well, but when Steve expressed some confusion over the more masculine flat chested dancers, it was then I decided he needed more champagne!!  It is so true … you can take the boy from the valleys, but you can’t take the valleys out of the boy!  But please don’t worry, composure regained, we went on to enjoy a wonderful evening of entertainment which saw dozens of set changes, so many costume changes I lost count, and when a fully grown stallion appeared on stage I could do nothing other than marvel at its bowel and bladder control!

We visited the Notre Dame, but sadly as a place of worship, it had become nothing more than a tourist attraction.  For those in the Cathedral who just wanted to spend a few minutes in quiet contemplation, it was almost impossible.  The clicking of the cameras and the popping of flash lights was almost intrusive. I have to say, nothing at all like St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, where even though the throng of visitors was greater than at Notre Dame, there was just a more respectful air about how the tourists conducted themselves.

We did the Da Vinci thing and went to the Louvre, where we met the most fascinating man who very kindly guided us out of the museum when we became totally lost in the maze of corridors and exhibition rooms. 

Have you ever come across a person who you find curious and rather odd at the same time?  Well, this man had obviously worked in the museum for a very long time, and knew everything you would possibly want to know about the Louvre.  But when he got us back to the exit, before we could thank him, he disappeared as quickly as he appeared.  It was a bit like those films you see when ghostly images appear and fade away in the blink of an eye.  Spooky yes, but we all agreed that with his grey wiry hair and chiseled features, he was most certainly a descendant of the French aristocracy.  

Throughout the week, we did all the other usual things that you do when on holiday, like buying fridge magnets for an already over-magnetted fridge, and consuming far more rich food and drink than is good for you.  But with the pending redecoration of our living room waiting for us on our return it was a few days of well deserved escapism.

Talking of insurances and redecoration, let me pose a question.  How many people does it take to process a house insurance claim?   The simple answer is more than one, and at this moment we’re up to five, and counting!!  The only consolation is a change of decor now beckons for the room that we have nick-named Etna.  My imagination is currently running wild.  I have considered subtle shades of grey, with more vibrant accent colours, but then, why not be totally outrageous.  How about a mural of a scantily clad woman, cavorting around on a fully grown stallion, whilst munching a generous portion of croque-monsieur at the top of the Eiffel Tower?   

Now that really would be a talking point for the neighbours, but would the accent colour on Steve’s face together with the need for a generous supply of blood pressure tablets create the desired result?  Maybe not, but you have to agree, its good fun even just thinking about it!

So it’s back to the wallpaper catalogue of this seasons “must have” colours and textures to make the perfect ambience to recreate our summer of LOuVrE,  Happy days.

FOUR FINGERS AND THIRTEEN TOES – THAT WAS THE MONTH THAT WAS!

April 26, 2012

Indeed, this as has been quite a month. New grass, new gardener, rain, rain and more … of the general hassle which comes with the end of the financial year.

However, Nil desperandum.  I am pleased to say that there have been a couple of rays of sunshine on the horizon of a rather miserable spring.

Firstly, I started work with the USS.  Ah! I hear you exclaim, another recruit for the secret service.  Well actually no.  USS is my pseudonym for Disability Arts Cymru’s Unusual Stage School.  My Facebook friends will know that for the last month or so we have been rehearsing hard for the adaptation of Birds by Aristophanes.  Now the plug … For those of you in close proximity of Cardiff, the Sherman Theatre Cymru 11th and 12th May are the dates you need, and for more information log onto the Sherman website at http://www.shermancymru.co.uk/performance/theatre/birds/

 

Rehearsals for this production have been a learning curve for me.  I haven’t sung for at least 20 years (apart from singing along to songs on the radio to fill the inordinate amount of time I seem to spend in the bathroom these days – and no, I’m not on water tablets!) and the last time I really remember acting (apart from the ‘D’ Monologues) was in the odd Shakespearian production at Treloars.  Anyway I can’t give away too much, save to say that I rehearsed my first stage kiss yesterday.  And  what about my verdict on my stage beau?  Well that’s for me to know and for you come and find out!

However, rehearsals aside, just before Easter the postman arrived with a bundle of post, and one very “posh” envelope from Buckingham Palace.  Addressed to me, yes, not Mr and Mrs, but just Mrs …!  It was an invitation to attend the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Service of Thanksgiving at Llandaff Cathedral in Cardiff.  Fortunately, on reading it, the “Mr” of the house was also included and so the invitation was duly accepted for Mrs. Rosaleen Moriarty-Simmonds and Mr. Stephen Simmonds.  Who needs equality legislation? The Palace seemed to have cracked that one no problem!

The next major dilemma – and one which every self respecting woman experiences on a regular basis – is what to wear?  The dress code for women, stipulated day dress and hat, and for the men, lounge suit. Easy peasy for the men, a new suit, shiny shoes and a smart bright tie.  But for us girls the issue of suitable attire for a Royal event needs more thought.  Inspiration on this occasion came in the shining vision of Bryony.  A young talented costume maker, whom I met through the Birds rehearsals, Bryony is one of the costume makers for the production. 

Now, I had no desire to be bathed in plumes of feathers for this dignified event; so, after a visit to one of the many fabric shops that I use for my dress material, I settled on a rather sophisticated fabric of black and silver.  I also decided to team this with a shiny black collar.  Bryony took the material away, and came back a couple of weeks later with the creation – all discreetly elegant and everything that I could have asked for.

But the more pressing problem was the head gear.  Picture the scene that is me … short arms, short waisted and not suited to hats whatsoever.  I remember with fondness my good friend Jeanette on our wedding day.  Jeanette was shaped very loosely like me, and hats simply do not mix with our shape at all. 

So, how do you overcome the problem of the hat requirement whilst accommodating my physique?  The solution requires the help of two sisters who were responsible for my “blond” phase about six years ago (was it a bad decision to go hat shopping with two people who had single-handedly turned me from black to blond in a moment of madness) and a number of very patient shop assistants.  I must confess that the exercise of choosing head gear was one made more pleasurable by a leisurely lunch, and then a hazy winey blur resulted in the acquisition of a rather fetching fascinator.  White feathers … we’re back to Birds again (but not my colour – you’ll still have to come to see the colour of my feathers on stage!).  The said item was to be delivered from a branch of the chosen department store outside the area.  When I gave the shop assistant my post code, it transpires that “Mr” had already bought items from that particular department store – although on questioning when I got back home, I was assured no female apparel had ever been acquired.  Phew, with the month that I’d just had, I don’t think I could have coped with a major life changing confession!

 

There was another issue which needed to be considered.  And like every other occasion in this country, it is weather-centred.  Remembering our encounter with the rain in New York last year, it is little wonder that every time I went shopping I came back with a different umbrella.  The stand in our hallway was once the sole domain of Steve’s walking sticks, but it now proudly displays a variety of umbrellas from one which is green with white spots, to a rather nifty looking brollie that Eliza Doolittle would have been proud to use at Ascot!

The day of the Thanksgiving Service arrived.  Weather checks every thirty minutes determined that Her Majesty might very well get wet.  But enough of me, Steve and James were more concerned with the Queen!  I opted for the discreet silver umbrella that went rather nicely with my outfit, and teamed very well with the clutch bag that I had decided to use.

There was a moment of tension when the fascinator went into my hair, and we wondered if I’d manage to get in the car without squashing the feathers, but all was well.

Armed with instructions on where to park in Llandaff (which is incidentally, a City within a City – for those of you reading this blog from outside of the area), admission cards and suitable forms of identification we set off.  The instructions had tersely advised that all guests had to be seated by 10am.  Surprise, Surprise, we were late leaving the house.  No worries, the traffic and traffic lights were (for a change) with us, and we drove gracefully down the High Street in Llandaff and were met by a rather helpful Steward who pointed us in the direction of parking.  Admission cards and passports at the ready, we presented them to the attendant police officer (who, to his credit was taking his job very seriously).  The Cathedral was rapidly filling and at the appointed hour, the pomp and circumstance commenced.  Guardsmen, Beefeaters and senior members of the clergy made the occasion very grand, and the music from the choristers, the organist and orchestra were simply awe-inspiring.  Timekeeping was impeccable, and right on time, the processional music commenced and the royal party entered the Cathedral.  Her Majesty is a grand lady, with grace and poise that has come from years of service to her country.  The affection from the congregation for our monarch was palpable. 

We had joked that we would probably be seated behind a pillar, and guess what … we were!  However, the aisle on which we were seated was wide enough for me to slip forward to see the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh as they walked to the front of the Cathedral.  I was thrilled when she caught my eye and smiled in acknowledgement. 

The service was over all too soon, and almost as soon as the cheers from the crowds outside the Cathedral has ceased, the congregation departed.  Back to their regular daytime activities, but if they were anything like us, highly honoured to have been part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, even if it was witnessed from behind a pillar and further obscured by a rather large christening font.

It’s now just about time to view the evening news, and reflect on the fact that “we were there”.

 

Tomorrow, it’s off to hear the Deputy Prime Minister speak at an event organised by the Cardiff Business Club.  I’m not entirely sure he will be received in the same manner as the Queen, but I guess he can dream! 

As for me, well my respite from rehearsal has nearly come to an end.  Later I shall be filling the house with my dulcet tones to the Birds chorus … and no, I’m not telling what the lyrics are.  On that note, hopefully I will see you in Cloud Cuckoo land, or even on Twitter for that matter.  So for the time being I must fly!

FOUR FINGERS AND THIRTEEN TOES – EVERY PICTURE TELLS A STORY

February 6, 2012

Every picture tells a story.  How true.  They say the camera never lies, and as time goes by, those photographs that we look at from yester-year allow us to cling onto a hazy youth and far flung times, when no-one seemed to have a care in the world.

Just last week, my diary flagged up a reminder that my blue (disabled) parking badge is soon due for renewal.  With the form that comes from the Local Authority, there will a request for a passport sized photograph, for ID purposes.  Fortunately, the photograph for blue badge purposes does not have to conform to passport regulations – thank goodness for that, I cringe every time I look at my passport.  The resultant scramble through the digital images stored on my computer reminds me that whilst the mind still thinks I’m eighteen, the reality is very different!

In this collection of first generation and scanned images there are the wedding photos, with me looking all fluffy and flushed with expectation; The honeymoon snaps that had me looking all … well flushed; a succession of holiday photographs of me looking all lobster-like, the “just given birth” pictures in which I was plain exhausted, and then the “significant” birthday images, which start off all demure and descend into chaos with the debris of many empty bottles visible as the significant celebrations trundle into the night!

One of the biggest problems with the age of digital photography is, that you have to be so conscientious about downloading your photos after each time you use your digital camera.  That, I confess, is where I fall down. 

I have two cameras.  One is an SLR which I use to take “important” photographs and the other is a neat little compact camera which fits nicely into my handbag for those impromptu moments which are, more often than not, the stuff of those magical moments – cute, funny or serious – that we come across so regularly in the media.

Here in Cardiff, there is a wonderful man called David “Dai” Lloyd.  He works for City Motor Services (CMS) who specialise in the adaptation of vehicles for disabled drivers and passengers.  I have known the guys at CMS for over 14 years, and Dai especially, never fails to come up with an idea for making life easier.  When I decided to make a foray into more serious photography, I asked Dai whether he could fabricate a tripod for my camera that would attach to my electric wheelchair.  I had a rough idea of what I wanted, and I particularly like the idea of being able to cut the camera upwards towards the sky and downwards towards the floor!   But had absolutely no idea of how this could be done on a technical front.  Dai asked me to let him give it some thought, and after a couple of phone calls to confirm matters I left him to get on with work on the tripod.  Sure enough, after a couple of weeks, I got a call to go down to the garage, and I was thrilled with the fruits of his labour.  With a few minor adjustments to the arm of my chair, Dai had fabricated an electronic tripod with an actuator which, when plugged into the electrics of my chair, allowed the tripod to rise and lower (with camera in situ) so I could take the clearest images you could wish for.  I can now take photographs of birds up in the trees, and children sitting on the floor.  Every woman should have a “Dai”!

The “happy-snappy” camera is the one which, if everyone is like me, gets left until the memory card is full, and then the panic to download goes into overdrive.  You end up with all the downloaded images being placed in a folder on your PC hard-drive, with some obscure name, and the photos then languish – unloved and forgotten – until you need an image from way-back-when, and you spend half the night trawling through said photographs and having a real good laugh at how much some dim and distant relative has changed since the photograph was originally taken.

I was in this situation only last week.  During one of my rare moments of madness when I decided to change my handbag, and the compact camera appeared from the farthest crevice of my rucksack, I decided to download the photographs.  What a laugh – “Take That” from two years ago; Numerous photographs of my Dad’s dog Max – taken for a reason that I really can’t remember – but I am guessing he was either doing something funny or naughty.  Steve’s first attempt at a Steak and Ale pie (which I have to say was surprisingly good); A photograph of me with Rhydian Roberts (remember him of X-Factor fame) taken at a function a couple of years ago;  A photograph of Steve, James and I with Shirley Bassey taken in Monaco when we were in our 50th birthday holiday celebration mode; Some photographs of us at last year’s Royal Welsh Show (I learned last year that Steve has a fascination for new farm machinery – you really do learn something new every day!)  To top it off, I found a collection of photographs of Rosie, Steve and James looking less than glamorous in our pyjamas (which have now thankfully been consigned to the recycle bin, thanks to the almighty power of the delete button).

In our own way, all three of us, have a good eye for a photograph, and James especially has taken some really good images since an early age.  When he was about two, he had a toy camera for a present, and used to spend hours pretending to take photographs of everything around the house.

James Moriarty-Simmonds, 2 years old, first photography assignment!

As he got older, he used to pester me to use my first SLR and somewhat reluctantly I agreed.  During a trip to Hereford Museum, where we went to see a gypsy/traveller caravan that Steve’s Great Uncle had renovated, we discovered James’ real talent for photography.  He couldn’t have been any more than eight, but the images taken of the intrinsic renovation work, were far beyond his years. 

Since then, we have all taken some very interesting photographs, and our Christmas cards usually feature a piece of work which James has done during the preceding year.

We have tried our hand at photographic competitions, but James has enjoyed more success than I.  He has been fortunate to have a piece of work accepted as part of the celebrations for the Cultural Olympiad. His work together with other winners will be exhibited at the Norwegian Church Heritage Centre in the heart of Cardiff Bay. On the back of that, the selected image is available as a postcard available free to the public at 25 selected venues throughout Wales. It will also be included in a book.

He has already had a number of great commissions, including a shoot of Wheelchair Rugby Paralympians, which will be on display this year at the National sports Centre for Wales, Sophia Gardens. Further, a number of the images will be included in the welcome packs for Olympians and Paralympians who train in Cardiff during the run-up to the Olympic Games this summer.

James is in the process of establishing a website to market and promote his work. His forté is very much abstract and landscape, but he is equally at home with portraiture.

Every image that we look at really does tell a story all of its own, and when I committed “pen to paper” for Four Fingers and Thirteen Toes, I decided that each chapter would start with a photograph.  The photographs do, like every photographic image, hold memories of happy, sad and poignant times.

February is always a sad month for me, as it marks the anniversary of my Mum’s passing.  This year will mark the 20th anniversary since the day that my world was turned upside down.  However, Chapter 17 of my book contains a photograph of my Mum on the 6th February 1992.  It was the occasion of my niece Daisy’s first birthday.  It is the last picture I have of my Mum, and one that I cherish very much. 

Today, Daisy will celebrate her twenty-first birthday, and when she, and her sister Jodie and brother Hugo pose for the obligatory birthday photograph, that photograph will tell a story of a Grandmother who was fiercely proud of her grandchildren, and of Grandchildren who have honoured her memory in the best of ways.

Yes, there will be the raucous photos on Facebook, but as time passes, it will be the photographs of the glamorous Hollywood themed 21st Birthday party which we will all remember – how handsome the boys looked, and how strikingly beautiful the girls were. 

However, make no mistake, in couple of year’s time, from the deepest darkest depth of my computer’s memory, I shall find old photos of gangly teenagers and young adults, posing with grossly overdone lipstick and sporting Spice Girl hair and fashion.  I shall take great delight in reminding my nieces that the camera never lies, and every picture tells a story.  Oh what a delight it will be to make the younger generation squirm, just like our elders did to us!

Which reminds me, I must check my own Facebook pages and make sure that any incriminating photographs of me are removed; for fear they should become encased forever on some mega main frame in Cyber Valley California.  After all, I do have a reputation to maintain – Don’t I?

Now, where can I find the best photo for my new Blue Badge … Ah well, only three million digital images to go!

FOUR FINGERS AND THIRTEEN TOES – THE NEED FOR AN EASY LIFE.

January 12, 2012

The title of this month’s blog may seem a little misleading.  I’m not wallowing in self pity or vying for an easy life, but rather taking a view on the need to just make life a little less stressful in all sorts of situations.

So, here I sit surrounded by lots of things designed to make life easier.  I have my all-singing all-dancing computer, a phone that I can instruct to “phone so and so” and now I have a music system that allows me to play our entire CD collection without so much as slipping a CD into the CD player. 

More of that later, but let me take you back to early December.

For various reasons, mostly family, the preparations for Christmas in this house were, to say the least, running behind. 

Fortunately, we have never been traditionalists, and so an artificial Christmas tree has always been our preferred choice of marking the festive season.  This choice does avoid the need to go traipsing off to the local garden centre and coming back with something that you imagine would fit in the house, only to discover you need to lop a bit off the top before you can even get it through the front door.

Over the last twenty three years, in addition to getting through a number of artificial trees, we have also gathered an array of festive décor.  You know the things I am talking about – the bauble you bought from a Christmas shop whilst on summer holiday, the remnants of a primary school education, and even (in our case) an inflatable goose (bought when Steve and I went to our first pantomime together back in December 1988).  You’ve probably gathered that the panto we saw was “Mother Goose” and Steve insists that this relic comes out every year, and sits (along with other festive cuddlies) under the tree. 

As our Christmas tree was being taken out of its box this year, Steve and I mused over how our family Christmases were etched with memories of father’s struggling with tree lights that were not packed away neatly the previous year, and so with unerring regularity, the ritual of untangling tree lights would begin in earnest with tempers fraying at the first knot to be encountered on the long road to festive heaven!

I can still picture the scene in our house.  My Dad, having had a long day at work, would come home on the dreaded day of tree decoration.  He would be sweetened with his favourite dinner, and then banished to the front room, and told to stay there until the tree lights were working.  Sometimes my Mum would take pity on him and smooth the rocky path with a glass or two of whiskey, but the outcome was always the same … After a couple of hours, and very many expletives, Dad would emerge from the front room, triumphant, having won the annual battle of the lights. 

But, we all knew it would end in tears on twelfth night.  Taking the lights off again was another battle, which did result in Fatherly defeat.  The surrender would see my Dad, with a mixture of frustration and temper, rolling all the lights up in a ball, grumbling with post Christmas misery, and packing the problem away for another year. 

Determined not to make the same mistake as our fathers, and to avoid a December Armageddon, we decided that our tree lights would be packed away in meticulous fashion.  And I have to say, it worked perfectly until … and this is where I come back to making life easier (and your patient reading has paid off) after one particularly stressed tree decorating session, Steve decided that trying to balance his bum on the arm of his wheelchair whilst wielding a string of fairy lights and striving for symmetry on all areas of the tree was just too much.  A hasty trip to B and Q was organised, and hey presto, a fibre optic tree materialised that disposed of one Christmas problem.

The next issue that desperately needs to be addressed is how to make wrapping Christmas presents easier.  We have a major problem in our house.  I am Rose amongst two thorns – well actually two blokes – who have absolutely no idea how to wrap presents! 

With me, the small matter of four fingers doesn’t help either, but try as I might; I have not been able to coach my men in the art of present wrapping.  Granted things have got better since those heady days of our first Christmas, when I spent hours on Christmas morning unravelling yards and yards of wrapping paper that had been rolled and rolled and rolled around my presents and secured with copious amounts of sticky tape.  But I always knew the one to leave until last.  It was the one with nice shiny paper and swirly festive twine – that had been wrapped by the nice lady in the jewellery shop.  Need I say more!

It is fair to say that things have moved on a bit.  We have reached a situation where a little thought is given to the choice of wrapping paper.  Now, at least, Steve does try to alternate the wrapping paper that he uses when wrapping presents.  It is an attempt – albeit a vain attempt – to avoid the “production line” syndrome which constitutes present wrapping in the Moriarty-Simmonds household.

Just before our annual wrapping fest started this year, we watched a programme on TV which espoused the virtues of wrapping made easy.  Ha (!) the premise of the programme presupposed a household where the kids were in bed, or down the pub (dependent on age), the partner was manfully hoisting a Christmas tree onto his broad shoulders and marching it into the living room where the log fire was blazing, and the lady of the house was sitting, all designer clad, on a newly waxed wooden floor surrounded by parcels neatly stacked into piles.  Wrapping paper and sharp scissors were at the ready, and the sticky tape dispenser actually worked!

For most of us, as the reality is so far removed from this fantasy, the programme presenter might just as well have come from another planet – and the further out in the galaxy the better.

With us, wrapping is either done during the day, in between work and business commitments or at some unearthly time of night when you’re so tired the sticky tape seems to stick to everything except the wrapping paper. 

There is however, a problem if you have time to indulge in festive wrapping during the day.  And that is you can guarantee the door bell will ring unexpectedly.  Then a panic of nuclear proportions erupts as you try and get the presents hidden for fear that the caller may be the recipient of one of the gifts that you are trying to wrap with such care and creativity!

There are at least two people reading this blog who go to inordinate lengths to produce beautifully wrapped parcels with baubles, bells and bangles.  How I yearn to produce such wonderful creations … Utopia!

This year, I got James to give me a hand to wrap some of our parcels.  I thought a little festive bonding between Mother and Son was the order of the day.  Well, that was the theory.   James has obviously inherited his father’s ability on wrapping.  Let’s just say that the wrapping paper industry will not flounder unless James grasps the idea that unwrapping Christmas presents is not a new innovation in the game of “Pass the Parcel”.  To top it off, we ran out of labels, and had to resort to post-it notes.  Steve’s pressies had yellow ones, and James used what was left.  Lurid green seemed to be in vogue.  If that wasn’t enough, we both got decidedly bored of writing messages on post-it notes, and by the end of the session, my labels had gone from expressing undying love “for my wonderful husband” to “Love Always R xx”.  That reminds me, I must also make a mental note of the need to find a more efficient way of writing labels for next year.

Fast forward to Christmas Day.  The effort of wrapping presents and decorating a fibre optic tree had taken its toll.  You know you are exhausted when your father (remember, he of the fairy lights battle) who stays with us for Christmas Eve, marches into your bedroom at 9.20am and demands to know why you are not yet up and dressed, and if you want tea or coffee to go with the Christmas Day breakfast that he has prepared.

And so, all bleary-eyed with wonder and excitement – well it used to be that way – we trundled up to the living room.  Twinkling fibre optic lights and an array of presents surrounded the base of the tree.  Presents to Steve, Rosie and James, were all easily identified by the psychedelic post-it notes, and were interspersed with those fancy parcels from … I shan’t name you but you know who you are!

There was the obligatory present from Steve, all nicely wrapped, but this time it was wrapped by the shop assistant in the rather expensive perfume shop.  Then I got down to the business of unwrapping my other less elaborately wrapped presents.  The music system to which I referred earlier is one of the most useful presents I have been given for a long time. 

I really do love music, and I will now be able to listen to my CD collection without having to trouble anyone to load or unload the music.  The only problem is that the CDs have be loaded into the system first, and having started on the task, it has quickly become apparent that my taste in music has changed dramatically over the last twenty, maybe even thirty years or so … Aled Jones and the Snowman; Charlotte Church and the Voice of an Angel .. What was I thinking of!

So in the last couple of days, whilst I am learning to operate my new voice activated phone (a present to myself whilst spending wisely my birthday and Christmas money from Dad – he of previously mentioned crumpled fairy lights saga), and Steve spends his evenings loading CDs onto my new music system, we have discussed how we can make things even easier.  I’m told it is going to start with storing the Christmas tree in a Christmas tree storage bag.  The recycling bank will be in for a treat when the old boxes end up in cardboard heaven.  I think a collection of storage bags arrived from Amazon the other day.  There will also be storage bags for all our other festive bits and pieces.  The theory is that by cutting down on unnecessary festive trinkets we will have more time for packing.  We shall see.

Let’s just say that festive gift bags, with tissue paper for protection and labels already attached to the bags become more appealing by the minute as I write this blog.

I am however worried that Steve is taking this make life easier crusade a little too far.  Today he suggested we do away with our lawn in favour of synthetic grass, and has even suggested a “Wallace and Gromit” style machine to help me get dressed in half the time, it takes me to get dressed at present.

If he thinks I am going to be propelled from my bed into my clothes rather like Russell Grant was fired out of his canon on “Strictly” then he can think again. 

Making life easy – whether at Christmas or any other time – is one thing, but the root cause of the problem has to be tackled.  As I see it, there are two solutions to making our festive fun more feasible.  Firstly we hire someone who provides a nice tree decorating service to decorate our Christmas tree, and secondly I enrol my boys on an intensive course on gift wrapping. 

However, to be absolutely honest, I rather like the over-dressed fibre optic tree, with the mish-mash of baubles collected over the years.  Yes, it would be nice if the presents were all wrapped in the style of an expensive department store, but does it really matter how the gift is wrapped … Isn’t it the thought that counts? You can let me have your thoughts on this point, in next year’s Christmas cards please … Or by posting comments on my blog site!

To end this first 2012 blog, I hope the New Year is kind to you and your family, and that all your dreams and ambitions are fulfilled just as you want them to be.

Happy New Year!

FOUR FINGERS AND THIRTEEN TOES – THE BABY BOOMERS OF THE 1960’S COMING OF AGE

December 1, 2011

Lately, there has been a flurry of activity on one of the social networking sites to which I subscribe.  Such activity has not been about the latest evictee from the Australian jungle; the last to be booted off the British or American version of the X Factor; or even which dainty-toed celebrity has waltzed off Strictly.  No, it is all about my “friends” across the globe, reaching the age which, according to some heralds a new era in life … Fifty is apparently the new thirty.

Now, to someone who is fast approaching the odd number that follows 50, it is comforting to know that many of my family, friends and colleagues are now entering that cuddly comfort zone of advanced middle age.

Since September, my local card shop has done more than a slightly increased turnover in my purchase of birthday cards celebrating that illustrious half century event.  I have enjoyed buying every soppy, elegant and even risqué card, and each (hopefully) having a special meaning to the person who has received it.

It crossed my mind the other day that I ran out of digits to count my decades when I hit forty, and I am guessing that lots of my Thalidomide friends are having the same problem.  But I take heart from the fact that if I use my toes, I have another thirteen decades of blogging to go before I am finally exhausted of things to say!

So where did we baby boomers come from?  Well, if you don’t know that I think you need to redo your school biology course!  Having said that, it began in the late 1950s and there have been a number of suggested causes, with two prominent thoughts. One was increased prosperity, but strangely enough the other was comprehensive contraception. Being able to have babies when a woman wanted, meant that she was free to marry young if she felt like it. And those who married young had babies younger and sometimes went on to have more of them.

The United Kingdom experienced a baby boom during the 1960s, with a peak in births in 1964.  And if you look back in time, there is usually a reason for a baby booming generation.  There is no real consensus regarding the cause of the baby boom: social scientists suggest a complex mixture of economic, social and psychological factors. 

But, in the case of the baby boomers of the early 1960’s it was (as I suspect is usually the case) the weather.  The spring time of 1960 must have been particularly cold, as that would have been about the time that Steve and I were conceived.  All I can say is thank goodness for central heating, one of Steve is more than enough (!) and they broke the mould when they made me (modest as ever!)

1961 saw the UK having a summer much like most British summers, and saw much frivolity at seaside resorts up and down the country.  I am guessing that the colder winter of 1961, as precursor to the terrible snow of early 1962 has much to do with this (now) sudden influx of members to the fifty-something club.

But how do you tell when you are getting old? In a recent article in our daily newspaper, it was suggested that if you hate noisy pubs or groan when you bend down you are getting old. 

So, in the great tradition of poking fun at family members, I thought I would enlighten you as to how my family are progressing on the age stakes.

Here goes:

  • Falling asleep in the front of the TV – From the noise that emanates from my Dad’s nose, I’d say he’s getting old.  Consider the scene … Christmas Eve, and all is still in the house.  All guests have left, and my Dad has decamped to us to make sure Santa doesn’t have too many visits to make in Cardiff.  A glass of whiskey on the table, feet up and slippers on … ZZZZZZZZzzzzz(snort).  Yes, he’s passed the test!!
  • Struggling to use technology – My mother-in-law fits the bill perfectly in this category.  She has a mobile phone which lives in her handbag, inside a bag, inside another bag, and then for good measure, on vibrate.  It has been known, that when travelling by bus, she hears the phone, takes an age to find it at the bottom of her bag, and then promptly hits the wrong button and turns it off, rather that connecting the call.  Don’t even mention voice mail – She thinks this is a singing postman.  A definite yes on the age test!!
  • Losing your hair – I refer to my husband … Say no more.  Most certainly he is getting old!
  • Developing a fondness of sherry or something a little more sophisticated  – Well, that’s me, my sisters and most, if not all, of my friends.  That well worn phrase “a glass of fizz on arrival” is music to our ears.  We are proud to have passed the age test.
  • Thinking doctors, policemen and teachers look really young – I am sure many of you will agree such thinking is a wonderful way of persuading your better half to go to the School Parents’ Evening.  What greater incentive to hear how your little darling is doing than to sit in front of a rather dishy maths teacher … and if you deny this one, you are stuck in a time warp – Get real, we’ve all done it!!
  • Taking a mid afternoon nap – My lovely sister and her husband have already joined the club on this one!!  Sunday in their house just wouldn’t be the same without the man of the house quietly slinking off for a sneaky duvet session after a rather enjoyable lunch.  Come to think of it, maybe I should include the whole of this side of the family in this category … “OMG” old before their time!!
  • Moving from Radio 1 to Radio 2 – Let’s just say the only reason I re-tuned my radio was because of a poor Radio 1 reception.  That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it! 
  • Joining the National Trust – Steve’s sister falls into this category – Not that she’s old, but when her school had an OFSTED inspection last week, she was hoping to do well, and retire with top marks – fortunately no “could do betters” on her report.  Watch out John, the treasures of the National Trust will soon be a permanent feature in your living room!
  • Preferring a brisk walk to a Sunday morning lie-in — I’m not sure whether it’s getting old, or the fact that my youngest sister and her partner, appear to have a knack of adopting dogs – and lots of them!  Either way, a stay-in-bed Sunday morning is a definite no-no.  Dogs at the ready, walking boots on and there you have it.  A good walk is only surpassed by the obligatory dog shower (on returning from the early morning romp in the woods) to complete the picture of middle aged respectability that pervades the most coveted dogs home in Cardiff!
  • Not knowing any songs in the top 10 – Unfortunately, Steve is scoring quite highly in this competition.  Jesse J. was on the TV the other day.  He couldn’t quite understand where the three decades between the spandex of ABBA and the quasi-goth look of Jesse J had gone … Ahh bless him – He’s been a member of this club for far too long!!
  • Joining the Women’s Institute – Perhaps not quite the WI, but ladies of the NSPCC Central Cardiff branch, you know who you are … welcome to the age club!
  • Realising that your music collection is on Vinyl; Cassette; CD and Download – Makes me feel really old. This obviously means that I have four versions of my favourite music! Must make mental note to keep up-to-gate with technology… God help us!

And finally …

  • Choosing clothes for comfort rather than style – We should all be proud to admit to this one.   Lycra this and stretchy that make a wonderful addition to the wardrobe of the fifty-something club member.  If, like me, you’ve given up trying to squeeze a quart into a pint pot, you will appreciate the advantages of elastication.  Go on, free yourself from your inhibition, and seize the opportunity of joining this club … Membership is free and the benefits are enormous.  I want to dedicate this last category of ‘membership to the fifty-something club’, to my brother-in-law José, who celebrates his 50th Birthday next week.  His choice and style of clothes (especially on Christmas Day) speaks volumes about his exquisite sartorial elegance! 

I would like to be the first to welcome José and all the other new members of this Club to a time of enlightenment; to the delights of Ibuprofen; to looking forward to retirement and to growing old in quite the most disgraceful manner!!  Relax, enjoy and have fun.

What about this as a final thought … If fifty is the new thirty, then seventy will be the new fifty, and in about twenty years time we’ll have to celebrate our half centuries all over again.  Now, that’s a thought to ponder over our ever expanding girths. 

 “Another glass of fizz for anyone?”