05 December 2010

Having a Ball at the Vet's

Today, we drove past a veterinary practice that had a huge banner hung up outside saying,

50% off neutering

I found myself wondering how doing only half the job would work...

Then I realised it was a 'two for the price of one' offer.

19 November 2010

Mis-fuelling Scam Exposed!

On Tuesday, a the end of a tedious day, feeling unwell, frustrated and tired, I filled up the tank of my car with £53 pounds-worth of unleaded petrol.  The only problem is, my car has a diesel engine.  Not realising my mistake, I drove my car at speed the twelve miles from the fuel station to home.  The loss of power only became apparent as I descended the long hill into the village and then over the short one to where we live.  I parked up and went indoors, worried about what was wrong with the car and if it would work several hours later when I had to go to the airport to collect my Beloved who had been away to visit her parents.

I need not have worried because it's failing to work was a certainty, confirmed by the billowing smoke and fumes that resulted from my later attempts to start the engine.  Fortunately, we have a second car.  Unfortunately for my Beloved, it is a two-seater with little room for luggage.  We managed.

Still unaware of my mistake, and concerned that the head gasket had blown, when we got back home I took a torch out to the car and searched for evidence of oil running down the cylinder block but found none.  Then I checked the fuel receipt and realised the full horror of what I had done...

Interestingly enough, my Beloved had bought a renowned car magazine on her journey and had read that very night an article about the mis-fuelling of cars.  Apparently this problem is so common that recovery services have vehicles especially set up for siphoning, flushing and re-fuelling, and charge about £250 for the job.  Under no account, the article informed us, should you attempt to start a mis-fuelled car.  To do so damages the entire fuel delivery system and requires its replacement at the possible cost of thousands of pounds... 

Sleep did not come easily that night.

On Wednesday, I went to my usual garage as, by coincidence, the MX5 was due its annual service.  I explained the disaster to the proprietor and expected to hear that ominous sucking-of-teeth sound.  'That's OK,' he said, 'It's not as big a problem as everyone makes out.  I've done it myself.'  His confession, and his ensuing description of the much greater abuse heaped on his wrongly-fuelled engine for a whole weekend made me feel much better.  He just cleaned out the tank and flushed the system through and his car ran without problems for many years after.  He did tell me of another client who mis-fuelled his leased car and had no option but to pay the leasing company £4000 for a new fuel system.  I felt even better still when my friendly mechanic explained that the most that would need replacing was a fuel filter.  I arranged for Green Flag to recover my car to the garage for remedial work.

Apparently, the story goes that steel parts in the diesel's fuel pump break down after being soaked in petrol and then the resulting particles pass through the the rest of the system, wrecking it as they go.  However, it is normal for exactly the same pump to be used in both diesel and petrol engines, so damage from petrol is hardly likely, and the fuel line has a filter after the pump that would remove any fragments before they have chance to reach the injection system anyway.  Furthermore, diesel used to have petrol added to it to stop waxing in the cold extremes of the winter months: as much as 60%!

A colleague at work told me of a friend's garage where they see two or three mis-fuellings a week and charge a mere £90 for sorting out the problem.  The recovered fuel goes in a big tank where it separates into two fractions, petrol over diesel.  It then gets used in the garage's vehicles appropriately.  Win-win, you might say.

On Thursday, I got my car back in working order.  It goes like a rocket, having been cleaned out with a good soaking in petrol.  The cost?  Only £90.50, including £20 for diesel fuel (plus the £53 I lost on the petrol, of course). 

It seems to me that there is a massive con going on, with unscrupulous people making a fortune out of the mistakes and ignorance of others.  Obviously there is nothing wrong with using your knowledge to personal advantage - we all do that to make an honest living.  Using your knowledge to the deliberate disadvantage and abuse of others is entirely reprehensible.  If it is not actually criminal, it should be; it is certainly despicable.  Thank goodness I have a long-standing relationship with a reliable garage!

So, if you do what I did, don't panic, don't lose sleep, and don't believe the mechanic who tells you you need to re-mortgage your home: find a new mechanic.  If this has already happened to you, and you got ripped off, find a new mechanic.

06 November 2010

Obituary: Maximus Rex, ?/?/2003 - 4/11/2010

Max, our beautiful dog and wonderful friend, finally reached the end of his days on Thursday.  We have known him for almost six of his eight few years of life and have loved him dearly.

When he came to us from the rescue home, we were soon impressed by his intelligence, his very individual personality and his lively nature.  In his short time with us, he had some serious health problems, having needed major surgery to correct cruciate ligament failure in both knees.  True to form, he bounced back from both procedures and got on with being the vital, vigorous, fun-loving dog that he was. 

In October last year he started limping again and having the plate removed from his knee appeared to resolve the problem for only a short time.  In January this year he was diagnosed with cancer in his left tibia; we were told he had about six weeks of life left.  Even with this problem, he lived life at full speed as long as he could and proved everyone wrong by living until 4 November.

We remember his playfulness, his love of swimming, running and digging, his extensive understanding of English, his fixation on food and the exceptionally ripe smells that often resulted from eating it, his rolling in the back seat of the car, his ears flapping in the wind, his determination to bring home the longest or fattest sticks he could carry, his amazing memory for where he had left his tennis ball, warm cuddles and the smell of his smooth, shiny fur, his unfettered joy on the beach, his serious attention to guard-dog duty, his frustration with crows taunting him from just out of reach, his greeting at the door, his large presence in our home, his snoring by the fire, his affectionate nuzzling, and much, much more...

Apart from when nearing the end of his life, he was happy and up for anything that sounded like fun.  However, the disease finally got the better of him and it was clear to us that he was struggling and that we could do no more to restore and maintain his quality of life.  It was time to let him go before his suffering became too much.  His end was quiet and peaceful on his own bed in his own home.

He enriched our lives more than we had believed possible; we are the poorer for his passing, and our hearts are broken.  We did everything we could to ensure he had a good and happy life.  We are sad that it could not have been a long one, and miss him greatly.  We are proud to have known him and shared our lives with him.

21 October 2010

Holiday Reading - Five Book Reviews

As one who writes, I enjoy a good read.  I get the best opportunity to read when on holiday and do little else, actually.  My beloved is the same.  We spent two fabulous weeks on Kefalonia in June and got through a serious amount of reading between us, pausing only to grunt at each other occasionally in an effort to decide whose turn it was to get the beers.  In September, we had a week in a cottage in Ireland which was a bit more active in that we had my in-laws to entertain.  Nevertheless, I managed to read another book.

I thought I would share my thoughts on what I read.  These reviews are, of course, personal opinions.  You will no doubt be able to find other reviews that totally contradict my views; there is no accounting for taste...

The Butcher's Theatre - Jonathan Kellerman

I bought this book on the recommendation of the shop assistant.  It is a long read, probably three times the length of your average paperback, but with two weeks in front of me that in itself was no disincentive.  I had never read anything by this author before, so it was quite a risk to take on such a huge volume as an introduction.  I was not disappointed.

This psychological thriller is about the search for a serial killer in and around Jerusalem. The book is well-plotted with excellent characterisations.  The bad guy is despicable and could, if you are at all squeamish, put you off finishing the book.  The good guys are utterly believable, flawed human characters.  The writing itself is excellent with a clear style and flowing easily, what you would call a 'smooth read'.

Assuming the facts were well-researched, the book is also very informative about its setting.  Certainly, as someone who has spent a couple of weeks in Jerusalem, nothing jarred with me.

There is a particular scene near the end of the book that really fired my imagination.  Kellerman describes a fight between two of the characters with staccato phrasing that is anything but smooth: it captures the frantic desperation of a hand-to-hand battle that can only end with a death; it sucks you in and keeps you reading.

Conclusion: this was a thoroughly satisfying read, with red herrings and twists along the way, culminating in a thoroughly satisfying ending.

American Wife - Curtis Sittenfeld

This is a work of literary fiction based around the life of a real American First Lady.  The story is told in autobiographical form, and falls into three parts: the first about her growing up through various traumas and tragedies, the second about her relationship and life with her man and his family, the third about their time in Office.  The first part I found delightful, the second less so - but then, once you realise which President it relates to, that is no surprise.  The third part I found less satisfying but still interesting.  It was very well written throughout - but then you would expect that in this genre.

Conclusion: well worth a read, if literary fiction is your thing.

Acid Row - Minette Walters

I sometimes wonder about the excerpts from reviews that get printed on book covers.  'Breathtaking' this one said.  Er, no; except in the same way that manually loading a piano on the back of an elephant is.  The book reads like a screenplay for a second rate television drama, which may be what the author is pitching for.  Actually, it would not be a bad second rate television drama but, for a novel, I found the plot about paedophiles and riots contrived and the characterisation poor and underdeveloped.

Conclusion: I started, so I finished.  I doubt I will start another by this author.

The Bourne Sanction - Eric Van Lustbader

This one I picked up from the bookshelves in the resort by way of exchange for American Wife the day before we were due to travel home.  I really enjoyed the Bourne Trilogy films so thought I might enjoy this book.  Wrong.  Cliche upon cliche.  I started but could not be bothered to finish it.

I have never read any of the books that the films were based on so I cannot judge how well this one compares.  Since it is written by someone other than Robert Ludlum, the author of the original Bourne books, it may not reflect Mr Ludlum's talent at its best, although I presume whoever is running the franchise must have approved of what was written.

Conclusion: glad I hadn't paid for it.

True Detectives - Jonathan Kellerman

I bought this book in the airport to read in Ireland on the strength of my enjoyment of The Butcher's Theatre.  I was really looking forward to getting my teeth into another good read but I was disappointed.

It was nowhere near as good in any sense as the other book.  I found the characters two-dimensional, the plot about two feuding step-brothers involved in the same investigation into the disappearance of young woman somewhat thin, the red herrings floundering and the resolution pedestrian.  The setting (LA) appears to have infected the writing style and not just the dialogue, the whole book seeming to be written in cop-speak.

Clearly, Mr Kellerman is capable of excellent writing, and I will give him the benefit of the doubt with this one and try again.  I wonder if the pressure from publishing houses for authors to produce is not counter-productive when it comes to capturing a following...

Conclusion: all-in-all, very middle of the road. 

16 October 2010

Felicitaciones a Chile: Misión cumplida!

I sat up quite late on Tuesday night watching the BBC news channel's coverage of the unfolding drama in Chile.  It reminded me of the night I sat up on the occasion of the first moon landing, and I am unsure which of these momentous dramas is the more gripping.

I had to give up my wait because I had to go to work on Wednesday.  As it turned out, this was the right decision since the first miner did not emerge from the 'bowels of the mountain' (to quote President Pinera) until 4 a.m. UK time.  I did watch the report on Wednesday morning before going to work, and allowed myself to be late enough to see a live rescue.

Throughout the rescue, the world watched on and saw the same sequence of events repeated faultlessly 33 times.  I saw only a few of them live but each one brought a shot of joy as each man rose to freedom.  I know that, had I been able to watch all 33 in real time, not one of the events would have seemed in the slightest déjà vu.  The world has been glued to its global television set.  The events have filled our news bulletins.  We have found it compulsive viewing and I wonder why?  What made it so special?

Chile has broadcast around the world a message of hope and faith.  It has declared, 'People count!' and spared no effort to demonstrate that truth.  For once in this sorry human world, we have seen something positive and uplifting, and it has done us good.

I rejoice with each of the miners at their release and reuniting with their loved ones.  I also salute those incredibly brave members of the rescue team who went down the shaft without the certain guarantee of recovery to assess and support those being rescued.  I shall remember for some time the image of them standing in the mine when all the miners had gone, holding up a banner bearing the words 'Misión cumplida':  mission accomplished.  The surge of emotion I felt on seeing that almost had me in tears.

Well done Chile!  You have inspired the world.

(and thank you Google for the following translation - y gracias a Google por la siguiente traducción)

Me incorporé muy tarde la noche del martes viendo la cobertura del canal de noticias de la BBC del drama que se desarrolla en Chile. Me recordó a la noche me senté con motivo del primer alunizaje, y estoy seguro de cuál de estos dramas trascendental es la más apasionante.

Tuve que renunciar a mi esperar porque tenía que ir a trabajar el miércoles. Como resultado, esta era la decisión correcta desde el minero principio no salir de la 'entrañas de la montaña "(para citar al Presidente Piñera) hasta las 4 am hora del Reino Unido. Hice ver el informe en la mañana del miércoles antes de ir a trabajar, y me permití ser lo suficientemente tarde como para ver un rescate en vivo.

A lo largo del rescate, el mundo observó y vio en la misma secuencia de eventos repetidos 33 veces sin fallos. Sólo vi a algunos de ellos en vivo, pero cada uno traía un tiro de alegría, ya que cada hombre se levantó a la libertad. Sé que, si hubiera sido capaz de ver los 33 en tiempo real, no uno de los acontecimientos habría parecido en el déjà vu menor. El mundo se ha pegado a la televisión mundial. Los acontecimientos han llenado nuestros boletines de noticias. Lo hemos encontrado ver compulsiva y me pregunto ¿por qué? Lo que hizo tan especial?

Chile ha difundido en todo el mundo un mensaje de esperanza y fe. Se ha declarado, "contar con gente!" y no escatimó esfuerzos para demostrar que la verdad. Por una vez en este mundo de los humanos sentimos, hemos visto algo positivo y estimulante, y nos ha hecho bien.

Me alegro con cada uno de los mineros de su liberación y el reencuentro con sus seres queridos. También saludo a los miembros de la increíblemente valiente del equipo de rescate que fue por el hueco sin cierta garantía de recuperación para evaluar y apoyar los que están siendo rescatados. Yo recuerdo hace algún tiempo la imagen de ellos de pie en la mina cuando todos los mineros se habían ido, sosteniendo una pancarta con "Misión Cumplida" las palabras: misión cumplida. La oleada de emoción que sentí al ver que casi me hizo llorar.

Bien hecho Chile! Que han inspirado al mundo.

12 October 2010

The Rescue of the Chilean Miners

My thoughts and prayers today are with the 33 men trapped underground in the Chilean mine and with their rescuers.

I can only imagine the intensity of the conflict between anxiety and excitement they and their families must be feeling on this, the day on which the rescue shaft will be put to its intended use.  I am thankful that it has been made ready well in advance of the original estimate of Christmas.

I can only imagine the unbounded joy and profound relief they will experience on being re-united with their loved ones. 

I wish them all well with the imminent rescue, and in coming to terms with normality after what must surely have been a life-changing ordeal.  I am sure it will be difficult, having lived in this horror, to re-adjust to life among those who have not lived there with them.

May this rescue be successful without loss and without problems along the way.  May the men and their families be given all the help they need to find resolution of the past and direction for the future.

27 September 2010

As Seen on TV!

Did you see me on the telly tonight?  The new episode of Inspector George Gently, in which my beloved and I were extras (see this post), was broadcast tonight on BBC 1.  Called 'Gently Evil', it starred the hitherto unknown actor, Desmond Hilary (i.e., me!), as a prosecution solicitor.

I appeared three times in the court scene near the end of the episode.  You will have seen me on the extreme right of your screen, a row in front of the young girl on trial.  In one of the shots, you will have seen my head actually move!

My beloved, alas, appeared only twice, on both occasions just beyond the extreme left edge of your screen...  This fact has left a distinct tarnish on my moment of glory.

I await the call for my first film contract - perhaps as the new James Bond.  Apply now for autographs while they are affordable.

31 August 2010

Another Perfect Bank Holiday

I woke up this morning feeling flat.  Why I woke up in that mood I don't really know.  I had had a dream that was clearly stress-related but cannot remember what it was about.  It may be something to do with anxiety about my dog's terminal illness and the decision I will soon have to make.  It may just be that I hadn't slept well for the last two nights, having been away from home for the first of them or recovering from DIY in a cramped loft-space prior to the second.  It may be the result of an extended episode of boredom with work.  Whatever the cause of it, I just woke up feeling that I could not be bothered.  With anything.  Ever again.

Of course, I had to be bothered.  It was my turn to get up and walk the dog.  The slight improvement in his condition almost made dragging myself out of bed, taking him out and picking up his poo feel worthwhile but any such benefit was countered by the miserably cold and grey August weather.  Back at home, I managed to make mugs of tea for my beloved and me, and then immersed myself in one of Jeremy Clarkson's books for an hour or so.  I even managed to find amusement in some of it.  Then my beloved needed her breakfast, and the dog needed another wee.

Despite wanting to spend the day curled in a ball under my duvet, I managed to transport a car-full of garden waste to the local tip, to clean the inside of the car so that it no longer looked like a builder's pick-up truck, take the dog out for his favourite pass-time of swimming in the river, and replace the CRT monitor on my desktop computer with a space-saving LCD device.  The sun also shone for an hour or so this afternoon, and I was able to give Mr Clarkson a little more attention whilst exposing my hypothalamus to mood-enhancing rays.

I realised whilst driving home this evening with our Chinese take-away that I still felt pretty crappy - interesting how toilet analogies inform the description of low moods - a bit like after a migraine.  The dog wasn't feeling too good either, having overdone it on the river bank, and needed extra medication.  He, at least, is more settled now.

Actually, my mood must have improved or I would not have felt like writing this.  Perhaps I find some perverse pleasure in being able to inflict my misery on the entire Internet - or at least on the one or two people who persist in reading my blogs.  Had I tried to write this earlier in the day I would not have had the will to fini

11 August 2010

Burglars at Large! The Sequel

Well, the police contacted me to say they had arrested a couple of men for burglary in a nearby town, and suspected they were the same suspects in our adventure of the previous night.  Would I be prepared to look at some photographs?  Obviously, the answer was, yes.  Why?  Several reasons, as follows.
  • Criminals should not be allowed to set the tone of our society.
  • Criminals do not care about their victims.  Why protect them by looking the other way?
  • The police provide us with a valuable service but need our eyes and ears. 
  • We cannot expect to call on the police when we need their help but turn them away when they need ours.
Tonight, I went along to the local nick to look at video identity parades.  These were a bit like a PowerPoint presentations with nine images.  In my case, there were two suspects and therefore two parades. 

Everything was done very carefully.  One of the suspects had asked for a solicitor, who attended the parade to ensure that there was no prompting.  The second suspect had no solicitor, so the process was videoed.  The police staff were from a different station and had no direct involvement in the case to ensure there was no collusion. 

I was asked to view each parade twice without comment.  Thereafter I could see it as many times as I needed to, and freeze on any individual images I wanted to.  After each presentation, I was asked a series of questions, to which my answers were recorded exactly.

The first of my two parades showed a series of faces with just the area around the eyes showing.  One of the suspects I had seen had taken great care to conceal his identity.  I had also been at least 10m away from him.  If he was in the parade, I had no idea.

The second of my parades showed clear views of the faces; the other suspect had not shown such nous as to disguise himself.  As soon as I saw the first image, I knew the person I had seen was unlikely to be on show.  All the images in a parade are selected to match the suspect closely.  The guy I had seen had more hair and longer stubble.  Sure enough, I was unable to identify anyone.

Interestingly, the stolen bikes were in the station.  I had no trouble identifying them!

10 August 2010

On Building a Patio

Our garden, when we bought our house, had a brick- and stone-built barbecue in it.  After four years, I realised that it was listing increasingly to starboard.  The corner of the garden is higher than the surrounding ground, so my suspicion was that the garden was subsiding.

Since my beloved and I are not ardent barbecuers, I suggested that I knock down the structure, and then investigate and rectify the problem.  I suspected I would have to dig down to the surrounding level and build a retaining wall, then back-fill the wall and lay out a new flower bed.  A fairly straightforward task.

'Oh,' said my beloved, 'if you are getting rid of the barbecue we could have a summer house there.'  It is truly wondrous how so simple a statement can can have such far-reaching consequences...

A summer house, of course, is a structure.  A structure needs something to stand on.  Something large enough and, since we would not want to replace a lopsided barbecue with a lopsided summer house, something level.  So now I had to build a patio.  I still had to build the retaining wall as above but also
  • make the area for the patio wide enough by knocking down a stone wall around a raised flower bed and deep enough by lifting some of the gravel-covered crazy paving,
  • dig the bed back and rebuild the wall,
  • build boundary walls (a couple of courses of brick), since the ground is not level, to define the front and back levels of the patio,
  • provide drainage for the area,
  • fill the area with hardcore,
  • top it out with sand, and
  • lay slabs.
Listed like that it all seems quite straightforward but, with my having vanishingly little experience with these things, it wasn't.  Walls need footings, and footings need trenches.  Trenches need to be dug, and I was amazed at how many house bricks and huge boulders I found buried in the ground in exactly the right place to be in exactly the wrong place.   Anyway, having dug them out (with what the dog would call help, and what I would call a downright bloody nuisance) and back-filled the holes they left, and laid down thicker concrete footings to compensate for any failings in the back-filling, I was ready for bricklaying.

The next set of problems were beyond my control.  I got the retaining wall built but had to stop short of expiring because of the heat.  I also struggled with the mortar mix.  How on earth do people build houses with that stuff?   The following weekend, too much rain proved to be an obstacle (weather is a great problem for outdoor work).  Having a social life is also a distraction, as is going on holiday for two weeks, and family birthday celebrations 200 miles away.

Anyway, I eventually got back to the job and finished the re-sited wall of the flower bed, creating along the way a nice pile of topsoil for the dog to dig in (at least, he thought it was for him) and which, at some time, I would have to redistribute around the garden or transport to the tip.  In the process, I mastered the mortar mix and managed to build the boundary walls, despite the dog's best efforts.  I even grew to understand why some people kick their pets, although I love mine too much to resort to such extremes.  The spade in my hand did not seem to discourage his interfering ways...

Now, having demolished a barbecue built largely of bricks, and having dug almost as many from the ground, I had a huge pile from which to make hardcore.  This entailed putting each brick in turn on a large stone (also dug from the ground) and pulverising it with a 1.8 kg lump hammer.  I am amazed how hard bricks are (in the USA, such rock-breaking amounts to hard labour in penal servitude).  I made good progress with that at first, then discovered that it gave me Tennis Elbow in my right arm.  Further progress proved painful.  I needed an alternative way to get the job moving again.

For a while, I toyed with the idea of buying some hardcore but, having looked it up on the Internet, it proved to be largely unavailable in the form that I wanted or that my beloved would tolerate...  There was no option but to continue doing it myself by hand.  Fortunately, I discovered a two-handed technique that enabled me to avoid the pain.

Work continued, and the pile of bricks grew smaller.  Looking at the dwindling pile and the area yet to be filled in, I began to wonder if there would be enough bricks or if I would have to begin prospecting in another part of the garden to see if there was another as yet untapped seam.  However, another day's hard labour - a whole day breaking bricks; one whole day; that's a working day doing nothing but smash brick after brick after brick - proved the stockpile to be adequate.  I still had a pile of bricks and other rubble to take to the tip.  Oh joy!  I also now had Golf Elbow in my left arm.

With hardcore laid down, and gravel thrown in to fill the small spaces, the next day's work entailed filling up the area with sand and covering it with slabs.  Off to B&Q I went to procure the necessary supplies.  It transpired that, because I live on the wrong side of a bridge with a 5 tonne axle weight limit, and could not guarantee that the delivery vehicle could get within 10 metres of our house at all times, the thirty 400mm  square slabs I needed could not be delivered.  I would have to transport them myself.  So, pro tem, I settled for the sand.  Fifteen bags I bought, in accordance with the advice the B&Q man gave me.  Loaded them in the car myself, I did.  Drove home very gingerly, avoiding potholes and bumps so as to preserve my car's suspension.

At home, I took the sensible approach of unloading the sand bags as I needed them.  That meant that the seven I apparently did not need were still in the car for taking back to B&Q once I had levelled off the area.  Back they went, and I unloaded them from the car onto the B&Q trolley I needed to get them to the returns desk.

I then bought my slabs and loaded them into the car.  One at a time.  I drove even more carefully this time, amazed at how low the car sat on its suspension.  Since I was sure I would need all the slabs, the next job was to get them all, one at a time, out of the car into the garden.  I cleared the route, in good manual handling practice, only to find that, on my very first trip, the dog had assumed that the clearing had been for his benefit; he was lying in my path.  In fairness to him, he was willing to move on being so instructed, and it only took him two or three tellings-off to cotton on...

I next had to master another black art: cutting slabs.  Now, hiring an angle grinder may have made the job easier but I am a tight-wad and, in any case, like a challenge.  Not only that, I had already been given an excellent DIY book one Christmas that contained all the enchantments necessary for cutting concrete slabs to size, and had all the requisite magic wands (lump hammer and bolster chisel) in my armoury.  I also had two-and-a-half slabs spare for training purposes.  With unbounded confidence, I set to and destroyed only four slabs (cf. two-and-a-half) in the process.  I ran out of steam before covering the whole area, but at least I got enough slabs down to give an impression of what the the finished patio would look like.  I also decided that cutting slabs by magic was never going to be an accomplished skill of mine, and that I'd better find the right tool for the job rather than destroy the world's entire supply of slabs single-handedly.

After the weekend's heavy lifting, I spent the following day at work aching at my desk, struggling to lift even my mug of tea.  Admittedly, it is a very large mug.  Ordinarily, it would not be a problem but manual labour, for which I was not designed, had taken its toll.  I used my lunch break to investigate the cost of hiring an angle grinder or block cutter.  Since I couldn't do any slab cutting until such an implement had been acquired, I used the next couple of evenings to begin the relocation of left-over bricks and rubble to the local tip. 

Better inspiration followed.  I asked a colleague at work if he had an angle grinder and, if so, would he mind if I borrowed it?  Of all the people at work, he was my most likely source of a free loan.  Jackpot!  He had one and was willing to let me borrow it, especially after I explained that I was always reluctant to lend my tools to others for the simple reason that they usually come back broken.  I had to buy some cutting discs but, hey, that was a small price to pay.

I got all my slabs cut, and the garden filled with white concrete dust, not to mention the back porch and stairs, my shoes and my socks, in one evening's work.  Magic!  I even managed to use the ones I had damaged earlier to good effect.  Setting the slabs out demonstrated that the sand bed was not as level as I had believed.  Further work was necessary to remedy that, and I wondered if I should have kept a few of those bags of sand instead of taking them back to B&Q.  I had half a bag left, and reckoned I would need one more.

My beloved made her contribution to the work by riddling and bagging the pile of topsoil excavated from the raised bed and patio area.  I found a neighbour whose rockery needed topping out and managed to off-load a fair amount of the soil on her; not literally, of course, that would be cruel. 

The project approached its final stages.  I bought another bag of sand on the way home from work on Friday.  I had a weekend to finish the job.  All I had to do was level off the slabs and grout them with mortar.  That's all.  That, and walk the dog, give a statement to the police (see here for the reason why), receive a huge delivery of logs and move them by hand into the log store, walk the dog again, and eat some lunch.  Anyway, I eventually got to levelling the slabs and worked my way around the outside of the patio.  I fixed those at the front and back to the supporting bricks with mortar plus a special ingredient that made the mix much more pliable and easy to work with: washing-up liquid!  Brilliant!  Saturday came to an end and all I had to do on Sunday was level all the slabs in the middle.

Well, actually, I had to go to church, eat my lunch, walk the dog and then set to work on the slabs.  All with a badly bruised toe on my left foot, since I had stubbed it on the solid wooden foot of my beloved's grandma's balloon-backed chair on Saturday night.  I'm not complaining.  I still had one limb in full working order.  Working on the slabs was actually a bit of a relief because it meant spending a good part of the day on my knees instead of my feet.  I managed to run out of sand with only four slabs to go, two hours after B&Q had closed. 

Finally, on Monday evening, after struggling out of B&Q on that badly-bruised toe with a large bag of sand (how many did I take back and why?), I got the slabs all level enough, swept dry mortar into the spaces between, and sprinkled water all over to dampen the mortar.  My heart sank a little later that night, when it looked like I would need to go over the grouting again, the mortar having settled when wet.

On checking the patio in the morning, I was elated to find that all was well.  I had finished!  I had built a patio!  It took a long time and sweat and pain but I did it.  On top of that, I have learnt a load of new skills which I hope never to use again.

And there you have it.  Well, not quite.  The rest of the garden has to be put right but at least the patio is finished.  We thought about having a barbecue to celebrate but realised that we no longer had the means...

06 August 2010

Burglars at Large!

Picture it.  It is 5:10 am on Tuesday morning and our beloved hound begins to bark.  Now, he is more than a little on the territorial side, and enjoys a good bark at passers-by, even those going about their legitimate business.  He also enjoys his sleep, and would not bother barking a this time of day without good cause.

'What's happening now?' said I, stirring from my oblivion.

'Max is barking,' said my beloved, informatively.

As the man of the house, it is my duty to investigate anything that may prove life-threatening or even irksome, especially in the god-forsaken depths of the night.  'Better take a look,' I said, and went down stairs to see what the fuss was about.  The hound was still in his favourite place - on the sofa - but on the alert.  No-one was at the door demanding our attention, so I told the dog he was a good boy and went back upstairs to stick my head out of the bathroom window for a better view.

Imagine my surprise to see someone prowling around with a scarf tied over his face!  Now, no-one who wanders the streets at 5:10 am is beyond suspicion, especially when he is clearly capable of walking in straight lines and his preoccupation appears to be the insides of other peoples' cars.  Anyone doing so whilst attempting to conceal his identity is clearly a ne'er-do-well deserving of having his collar felt.  I performed my citizen's duty and, at about 5:15 am, duly phoned the police.  'Someone will be there as soon as possible,' I was told.  I have to confess a lack of excitement with such a promise.  I would rather have heard, 'Someone is on the way now and will be there very soon.'  'As soon as possible' turned out not to be very quick...

From my bathroom, I can see a lot of what is going on without giving away my presence.  I watched the fat, scarfed suspect wandering down the road and out of sight, and his skinny accomplice come into view on a bicycle and loiter near the house.  This second person was either new to the world of crime, or was brazened, or just plain stupid, since he did little to conceal his appearance.  He moved away after a while and eventually was joined by the fat git.  They wandered off down the public footpath behind our house and out of sight.

Still no police.  We are no more than five minutes from the police station.

Since the criminals had disappeared, I continued my watch for the police, so that I could tell them which way to go to apprehend the suspects.  Then I heard another dog barking.  Then I heard a car start.  Amazingly, a few seconds later, a car turned into our road, which is a dead-end, and screeched to a halt near our house.  The fat git was driving, and the skinny git got out and ran off down the footpath behind the house.  I made a note of the car and its registration number and called the police again.  The skinny guy reappeared carrying a chain saw and jumped back in the car, which reversed out of the road and disappeared away from our hamlet.  This sequence of events was conveyed in real time to the recipient of my 999 call at about 5:30 am.

Still no police. 

They did phone me back, however, to tell me that the car had been reported stolen and to ask which way they had gone.  There are two roads out of our hamlet, and the answer to that question later transpired to be, 'The other way.'  Had the police driven directly to us from the station, rather than trying to second-guess the villains, they would probably have caught them even as they made their escape.  Hindsight is a wonderful thing.  If only we could have it in advance...  In fairness, with the information he had at the time, the officer who was dispatched made a reasonable call.  What he really needed was enough support to approach along both roads and the footpath.

And our government wants to cut police funding.

Anyway, the police eventually arrived in several cars.  They searched the area and found two bicycles leaning against our fence; clearly, the criminals had broken into a well-stocked shed at some point during the night.  The car belonged to a neighbour.  The suspects had broken into the neighbour's house, stolen a laptop computer, found the car keys, and stolen the car even while I was waiting for the police!

The police helicopter arrived and went, and later reported that the stolen car was nowhere to be seen.

I spent the next I don't know how long making a statement, and, despite being up earlier than is good for a God-fearing soul, was later for work than I normally am.  I wouldn't mind, but the officer who took my statement thought there was little chance of catching the scrotes unless there were fingerprints.

The police called me again later in the day.  Would I be prepared to look at some mug-shots?  Of course I would.  They would contact me again when they had found someone who knew how to operate the mug-shot computer program and was available at a time when I could go along.  I haven't heard anything yet.

It has been rumoured that the suspects have been apprehended, although I have yet to confirm this.  The fact that I have not been called to view mug-shots may lend weight to this rumour.  On the other hand, maybe there is on-one who knows how to drive the program...

02 August 2010

Unemployment Policy in a Big Society

Government seems to be displaying a lack of joined-up thinking.

Messrs. Cameron and Clegg want us to stay in our jobs for longer, meaning that the number of people in need of work will increase. If we older folks don't leave our jobs, there will be less opportunity for those just starting out to find work. If there is nothing done to increase the number of jobs, this measure will lead to growing unemployment and more claimants for state benefits such as job-seekers allowance.

They want to encourage benefit claimants to work by reducing the value of benefits relative to paid employment, meaning that the number of people in need of work will increase. More people looking for work means that more jobs are needed. If nothing is done to increase the number of jobs, this measure will lead to growing unemployment and a greater burden on charitable organisations trying to support unemployed claimants whose benefits are inadequate.

Somehow, all employers need to be willing to take on more people. That's not very likely, as the last decade or so has seen employers make their dwindling workforce do more work. One way they do that is to not replace us when we leave or retire. So, even if we didn't have to work longer, there would be no extra opportunities for the unemployed to find work...

Public services are being pruned to make them more efficient. For example, the NHS's Primary Care Trusts are being abolished. This will lead to the redundancy of thousands in the PCT sector. The job currently being done by PCTs is being dumped on GPs, who would rather be looking after their patients and so will need to employ other people to do the extra work. Where will they get them from? Ah! Ex-PCT employees! Or some of them at least! We can make them work harder but we'll pay them less. And ourselves more for the extra responsibility we have to carry. The rest can get unemployment benefit... And we don't have to spend the money inside the NHS. Let's try out private health care. That will reduce the burden on the NHS even more, meaning fewer staff are needed. More efficiency savings! Never mind, they can get unemployment benefit.

The Government wants to encourage the 'Big Society', where more people volunteer and exercise greater social concern. Good idea. Because of the government's policies, there will be lots of unemployed people available for looking after many other unemployed people. So maybe the government has got it right, after all...

Question. Who is going to pay for it and how? Presumably, those of us still in work until we're 90 being paid peanuts by GPs.

Messrs. Cameron and Clegg, you have provide an incentive to employ, not just an incentive to work!

25 June 2010

Holiday 2010

My beloved and I have just had two wonderful weeks in Kefalonia, Greece, in the resort of Skala.  After our last excursion to Greece (see Stranded in Skiathos, this blog), you would think we would be somewhat reluctant to go there again.  Not so.  We were reluctant however to go with a tin-pot tour operator so we shelled out a bit more cash (i.e., credit) and went with First Choice.

Even though we had read the brochure and our accommodation looked good, having been to Greek islands many times and stayed in self-catering studios of usually less-than-good standards, we still held some trepidation as to what we might end up with.  Still, we had the usual fun of spending money and waiting about in the departure lounge, then waiting about in the boarding lounge, then waiting about on the plane.

Once airborne, and on the basis that it must be 6 o'clock somewhere, we indulged in an aperitif before our in-flight cuisine was served and a glass of wine while we ate it.  Chicken with roast potatoes and veg.  Not bad.  Airline food has definitely improved.  My beloved spilt some of her wine and I, soft touch that I am, shared mine with her so that she would not be deprived.

We arrived on the island at dusk and were directed to our transfer coach by the 'Holiday Adviser' — Thompson's new name for 'Holiday Rep'.  Darkness fell as we travelled along the narrow, winding roads plagued by Greek drivers, considerately hiding the vertiginous drops beside the road as we negotiated hair-pin bends.  Each time the coach stopped to let off fellow tourists, we looked out of the window at their destinations, thankful that we were not staying there.  This served only to intensify our only moderate anxiety.

Eventually, we reached Skala and the coach set off into the darkness behind the village.  Our destination was achieved, and the coach reversed down a steep driveway alongside the place that was to be our home for two weeks.

It looked fantastic.

We got off the coach and recovered our luggage, which was packed as usual to within a microgramme of our baggage allowance, and dragged them towards reception.  The owner met us and immediately impressed us with his friendliness and the personal touch of escorting us to our room.  He opened the door and led us in.

It looked fantastic and it was fantastic.  There was a proper bathroom with a shower curtain to keep the bog-roll dry (normal Greek accommodation has a wet room with no curtain, guaranteeing that everything in the room gets wet, and some things out of the room too).  Not only that, the shower was over a bath!  A bath in a Greek self-catering apartment?  Yes.

A balcony with a sea view.  Air-conditioning.  TV.  A microwave, a kettle, a fridge (with bottled water in it), tea and coffee, and a toaster!

The owner cooked a meal for us at 11pm!  Unbelievable!

We soon settled in to spending our days reading on the balcony, reading by the pool, reading on the beach, reading in bed, swimming in the sea, swimming in the pool, eating in the local tavernas or at our pool bar (where the food was excellent value and the wine easily palatable in large quantities at low cost).  I got so relaxed that I actually had a whole day in which I did nothing but eat, drink, and lie on a sunbed listening to the music in my head.

Since we went during school term, there were only two children in the complex.  One, about four years old, was a quiet lad.  His sister, approaching two, had a voice that could break glass.

We hired a car and drove on the wrong side of the road (i.e., the right side) for a couple of days (unlike Greek drivers, who seem to drive in the middle).  Kefalonia is a beautiful island and well worth a visit.  We think Skala is the best resort and our accommodation the best we saw.

My beloved and I fully intend to return (economic crisis permitting).  We cannot recommend our accommodation to you enough.  However, I am not going to tell you the name of it because you will book in and make it unavailable to us.

Now we are back at work and feeling in need of a holiday...

11 May 2010

A Dog's Life - Progress Report

For those of you who may be interested, I am pleased to report that Max is still in good form and generally interested in doggie activities like eating, going for walks, playing with squeaky toys, rolling around the carpet and barking at passers-by. 

We took him to see the vet a couple of weeks ago, and she was very impressed with him.  He was in perfect working order apart from the leg; he even had to have his annual jabs because it looks like he will be going into kennels for our holiday after all.  She thought he had a good few months to go yet so we are confident he will still be waiting for us on our return.

He has the odd day when he's a bit quieter, and he stops for a rest every so often on walks, but he's quite comfortable.  Sometimes he only wants to do a short walk.  Then he amazes us by taking us for really long ones.  Last Wednesday, for instance, he took me a good mile-and-a-half from home and still didn't want to stop - except for a brief rest.  I had to remonstrate with him to get him to turn back, using the magic word 'Dinner'.  He was good for another two-miler on Friday!  Not easy on three legs.

He also shows great interest in my current excavations in the garden (I am building a patio).  Digging a knee-deep hole with a large dog trying to help you find whatever it is he thinks I've lost is not easy!  He did go and lie down when I told him but lying down between the hole and the pile onto which I'm throwing the soil is unhelpful.

Good old Max!

10 May 2010

Electoral Chaos

Well, here we are with a hung, or balanced, parliament.  As they wheel and deal to decide who should form a government, how to unravel the tangled mess we have given them, let's hope they got and remember the message: we aren't all that happy with any of them.

Mr Brown has decided to go; do we have Mr Clegg to thank for that?  Despite comments in my previous postings, I do wish him well; I believe him to be a decent and genuine human being.  We still have no idea of who we are likely to get in place of him.  It won't be Mr Clegg.  It could still be Mr Cameron.  If the Lib-Dems ally themselves with Labour, who will lead the country while Labour elects its new leader?  I guess Mr Brown...

There is always the danger, of course, that the Lib-Dems will hang themselves out to dry by whatever decision they make.  If they go with the Tories it will give a genuine majority in the house but I can't see either party tolerating the alliance for long.  The Lib-Dems could be accused of compromising their principles.  The Tories will complain that they are being restrained from implementing their more radical policies (no bad thing, from my point of view).  If they go with Labour, there will still be no clear majority in the House.  Government will be reliant on the good will of smaller parties such as the SNP and Plaid Cwmru who will be in a position to manipulate Parliament to suit their causes (a good position for them).  They will be seen to have pushed the losing Labour party back into power. 

Chances are we will have another election in October.  By then, if we get another Lib-Lab Pact, we may have a form of Proportional Representation in place.  It will be interesting to see how politicians sort out the ensuing hung parliament.  Still, it works in Europe and New Zealand.  At least they will have a mechanism for sorting out who is in charge and the horse-trading won't be necessary.  Labour may be left wondering how they would have faired in a First Past the Post election with a new leader.  Of course, they could wait and see how their new leader inspires the public and, if favourably, call an election before they have chance for a referendum on electoral reform, thus stabbing the Lib-Dems in the back...

Interesting, isn't it?

03 May 2010

Prime Ministerial Debate No. 3

Well, that's it.  We've seen them all.  Now, at least, we have something to help us make up our minds.

I thought the last debate was interesting for as much as was not said as for what was.  We had a nice demonstration of adversarial politics, of which we are all well and truly sick, with Mr Brown and Mr Cameron slagging off each other and having a dig at Mr Clegg.  Mr Clegg seemed very quiet, apart from attempting to correct statements made by the other two about Lib-Dem policies.  Perhaps he was content to let them show us that they would only give us more of the same.

Mr Brown

Actually, I thought this was a better performance from him.  More commanding.  He seemed to identify the Conservatives as his primary target, presumably believing them to be the only genuine challenge to Labour.  Perhaps he sees the need not to come last in the popular vote so that he might get enough support to form the next government.  I believe he has a good grasp of the problems we face and genuinely wants the best for the UK.

Mr Cameron

The polls seem to indicate he won this debate.  I can't think how.  What were people judging by?  Not policies, if Mr Brown is to be believed.  Mr C. indulged in quite a bit of scaremongering.  For goodness sake, grow up.  I believe he wants to be in power and hopes we are sick enough of Labour to give it to him.  I think he is out of touch.

Mr Clegg

As I've said, he was relatively quiet.  I think he talks sense.  The other two seemed to want to make his immigration policy out to be something it is not but he held is own.

Whatever you may think of them,

  1. it is important to use your vote
  2. it is imperative that you vote according to conscience, not because of the way your grandfather and father before you always voted
  3. it is better to vote for something rather than against something else
  4. it is essential to remember that it is your vote to cast as you believe best for the United Kingdom
  5. do not be manipulated by one party into casting your vote to their advantage on the grounds that to do otherwise would let the other lot in.
  6. if you don't vote, don't complain afterwards.
I said in my last post who I intend to vote for, and nothing in the last debate changed my opinion.  Like many in the country, I am looking for genuine change.  I want to see a pragmatic approach that makes a difference. I am not impressed by idealogical twaddle and adversarial bickering.  I only see one party offering real difference.

In the last few days, there will be a lot of 'baby-kissing'.  Don't be impressed by that.  It doesn't at all mean they are in touch with the electorate - it just means they want your vote.  Give your vote to the candidate who best demonstrates he or she deserves it by their service for you in your constituency and for our country.

Please use your vote on Thursday. It Matters.

25 April 2010

Prime Ministerial Debate No. 2

Once again, I had to record the debate and watch it at a later date.  So, how did they do this time?

Mr Brown

Actually, he gave a much better performance, not that I think that performance is what a general election is about.  However, he did get less in the way of what he was trying to communicate.  Well, done Mr Brown.

Mr Cameron

More of the same, I'm afraid.  He said nothing that convinced me that I want him for my Prime Minister, or that I can trust the Conservatives with my country.  Whilst not part of the debate, I think the smear tactics deployed against Mr Clegg during the week just about sums them up.  Mr Cameron, you may as well not turn up for the next debate if all you have to offer is more hand-waving and specious argument.  The Tories were claiming that he won this debate.  Whatever were they watching?  Did I record the wrong thing?

Mr Clegg

Another consistent and good performance.  He continued to hold his own.  I do hope that his WYSIWYG claim is true.

The winner?  Neck-and-neck with Mr Brown and Mr Clegg, with last week's showing putting Mr Clegg in front.

Actually, in my constituency we have a two-horse race between Lib-Dem and Conservative, labour having come a disastrous third in the last election.  The Tory candidate doesn't come from here, has failed to win seats in other parts of the country and is standing here because his first choice didn't want him.  How cynical is that?  Our MP is supposed to represent us.  How can, if he doesn't know us or our area?

Since the only reasonable choice for me is to vote Lib-Dem, I need not watch the last debate.  I shall, though, because I take my right to vote seriously.

18 April 2010

Ah! Nick Clegg! So that's His Name!

Did you see the Prime Ministerial Debate the other day?  I watched it on Saturday morning having been out on Thursday and recorded it.  It thought it was very interesting, giving a clearer insight into what is on offer in the forthcoming election.

Mr Brown

I thought he was a bit stuffy, and disdainful of the other two.  I think everyone knows he is not very good in front of a camera and hope, since we are electing a Prime Minister and not a film star, that everyone is able to take that into account.  Even so, he did nothing to convince me that I want another five years of Labour.  Even though I've voted Labour in the past, I don't think I will be this year.

Mr Cameron

Bluster.  Posh.  PR.  Spin.  More interested in office than service.  He just does not convince me that he knows how many ears and mouths he has.  Or that the numbers indicate the proportion in which they should be used.  I get the impression that he does it all for effect.  He comes across as someone projecting an image.  He may well be a very decent human being and a nice man.  I just can't see him in Number 10.  Even though I've voted Conservative in the past, I don't think I will be this year.

Mr Clegg

Frankly, a breath of fresh air.  I have to say I was very impressed with this man.  If he was setting out to project an image, he very successfully projected the impression that what we saw was the real thing, not a put-up job.  He talked sense almost all of the time.  Mind you, I thought Tony Blair was a good guy, so what do I know?  I have voted Lib-Dem in local elections before.  We'll have to see how their policies hold up to a good bashing from the Reds and Blues before I make my final decision.  Would it be a wasted vote?  Well, if everyone who would like to vote Lib-Dem but thought it would be a waste actually voted Lib-Dem, we might just find ourselves with a Lib-Dem government...  Could they be worse?

07 April 2010

General Election 2010 - Heaven Help Us!

So the General Election has been set.  Now what are we going to do?

Seriously, I think the British public faces an incredibly enormous problem.  Our politicians have shot themselves in the foot, to put it mildly, over recent months.  The expenses scandal, as a result of which several MPs are being prosecuted, and the 'Taxi for Hire' scandal have all but demolished any confidence we had in our elected representatives.  The simpering manner in which the government has handed great wads of taxpayers money to bankers so they can continue living in luxury and claim fat bonuses while the rest of us wrestle with the hardships of the recession, if it does not make us vomit, gives us serious indigestion.  We can be forgiven for thinking that our MPs are a bunch of self-seeking charlatans who seek office for their own ends and have little, if any, interest in the common man.  Why on earth do they think we would want to re-elect them to govern us?

In my view, there could not be a worse time to have an election.  Goodness knows we need one.  Something has to change but do any of the parties have the wherewithal to get our great United Kingdom back on its feet?  What are we looking for?
  • We want to be able to place genuine confidence and trust in honest government.
  • We want our elected representatives to represent us, not their ideologies.
  • We want them to be committed to the issues that concern us, not to lining their own pockets.
  • We want them to achieve results, not just make promises.  
  • We want them to understand that they are our servants not we theirs.
There are specific issues that bother us, and which never seem to get sorted out properly; things like (illegal) immigration, education and health.  Those of us who pay our way in life do not want to find ourselves penalised in our final years compared with those who have lived on hand-outs all their lives.  There are other issues, of course, which unfortunately do not press themselves upon us but which need stamping out: sex-trafficking, climate change and global poverty, for example.  We would also like to know that our leaders are competent at dealing with weightier matters of state like foreign policy: we don't want to be puppets of the USA, Mr Blair, or walked all over by the great hob-nailed boots of the European Union.  While we value enormously those who dedicate themselves to serve our country in its defence, we don't really want them sent to foreign lands to die for want of adequate equipment.

The problem with elections is that we are not really given chance to say what we want.  We are given at best the choice of what politicians want to give us, at worst the chance to decide the outcome of a popularity contest.  Labour wants us to believe they are the best party to lead us out of recession and, since they presided over the slide into the mess we are in, perhaps they are the ones who best understand it.  The Conservatives are going on about a stronger society; it sounds different, at least, perhaps even hopeful, but wasn't it Margaret Thatcher who said there was no such thing as society?  The Lib Dems go on sounding sensible, if a little wishy-washy, but no-one believes they have the experience to run the country; look at those who do have the experience and ask if it helped...  Well, they all have a month to impress and convince us, and, boy, do they have their work cut out.  I, for one, have no confidence in any of them, and seriously wonder whom to vote for and if it's worth bothering. 

Some warn that a hung parliament may result from a poor turn-out in the election and that this is a bad thing for the UK.  Is it really a bad thing?  Parties would have to work together to get things done, and what they do would have to be balanced and reasonable.  Plenty of coalition governments exist in Europe and seem to work without too much difficulty.  Is it not much more dangerous to give one party an insurmountable majority?

Whichever of them wins, they had better come up with the goods...

03 April 2010

A Day in the Life of a TV Extra

On Friday, my Beloved and I had the chance to be extras in a TV show - Inspector George Gently, starring Martin Shaw.  Here is a rough outline of the day; the times are approximate.  As you read, please bear in mind that the show's episode takes place on a summer's day...
  • 6:00 am - My alarm goes off and we peel ourselves out of bed.  We prepare for the day with breakfast and a shave (just me, not my Beloved). 
  • 7:00 am - The day is very cold and I have to scrape the ice off the car before we leave home for the film unit's location.  My Beloved drives as I have to navigate.
  • 7:30 am - At the unit we report to the Second Assistant Director and find out where we have to go and what to do.  This turns out to be sitting on an old coach until called to Costume.  There is a small, 2kW fan heater on the 56-seater coach.  The door is open most of the time as the 32 extras arrive and go in and out for tea, coffee and breakfast.  We had not known breakfast would be provided, otherwise we could have got up later.  We just have tea, and fill in our registration form so we can be paid.  We begin to feel the cold.
  • 7:55 am - Deciding to get a bacon sandwich, I join the queue at the catering van.
  • 8:04 am - Just as I am about to be served, I am sent to Costume.  No bacon butty for me.
  • 8:06 am - Costume.  The dresser gives me a dark green, sixties-style suit to wear, with a cream shirt and narrow, brown tie (I had one of these in the sixties), and a decent pair of brown brogues.  I am to play a prosecution solicitor.  I get changed in an unheated room then the Dresser adjusts the length of the trousers and fits me with braces to hold them up.  My anachronistic spectacles must not be worn during takes. 
  • 8:25 am - I am sent back to the bus to await the call to Make-up.  I shut the door and take my seat again.  My Beloved is not there, having been called to Costume.
  • 8:30 am - Make-up.  Someone from Make-up turns up and sends me to be checked over.  I join the queue outside the Make-up Winnebago, meeting my Beloved who is dressed like her mother.  Another extra (playing a member of the press, and looking like a sleazy prat) jokes with my Beloved, 'Haven't you been to Costume yet?'  The guy in front of me gets told off for not being clean-shaven.  I am told I may get a moustache stuck on, and then I am told that I get a gold star for having shaved off my beard and moustache the night before.  My hair could be longer, though.  The Make-up girl smiles when I inform her that I am growing it even as I stand here.  The Winnebago is warm but, regrettably, nothing needs to be done to improve my appearance (as if) and I am sent back to the ice-box.  I visit the toilet, which is also warm, before returning to the bus to have my bones frozen.  I strike up a conversation with one of the others (I'm in the bus now, not the toilet) who is very welcoming on discovering that I am on my first gig as an extra, and he regales me with stories of his past experiences of freezing all day only to show up as an indistinct blur in the background.
  • 8:50 am - My Beloved returns with a sixties hair-do that she is later told makes her look like she has slept on her face all night.  The cold bites deep to the core as we sit and chat with others on the bus.  The man opposite (my fellow prosecuting solicitor and who was reprimanded for his hirsute appearance) does gigs as a drag queen, the one next to him was an extra in the film, Atonement. As we chatter, so do our teeth.  Our feet go numb as the circulating air seeks egress from the ever-open doors.
  • 11:50 am - On Set.  Numerous cups of tea and visits to the warm toilets later, we get the call to the set, the nearby County Court.  We are ferried down on a minibus, led into the courtroom and shown our places.  At this point, we still have no idea what is going on or what the scene or even the episode is about, and are given no direction.  As it turns out, it makes no difference for the first take, during which the judge makes his summing-up statement and passes sentence on the accused, a process that takes about three minutes, because none of us is in shot.  Then we are all moved out of the courtroom while the cameras are moved to different positions.  We come back and the whole process repeats.  There is the possibility that my left ear plays a major role in this take.  For the next take, one of the cameras will be in the position of the prosecuting solicitors and so the drag queen and I sit the next take or two out.  My Beloved is in the jury (front row) and has to stay in for all the morning's takes.
  • 12:50 pm - Lunch.  We extras are referred to as 'Background'.  We are told to wait a few minutes while the stars and crew go back to base.  Eventually we are told we can walk back to get lunch, now that the others have gone.   I can only assume that the minibus is a precaution against our getting soaked by rain - which had been forecast in copious quantities that would cause Noah to be concerned but which had failed to turn up.  The walk, in costume and through public streets, is only a few minutes; I feel like I am at a Bad Taste party. Back at base we are told to wait in the bus and we will be called when we can have lunch.  I learn something new: there is a definite pecking order; actors first, then crew, and extras are just props, the lowest of the low.  It is my sincere belief that some of us could be replaced by cardboard cut-outs.  The bus is colder than the open air.  
  • 1:25 pm - We are allowed to eat.  Actually the food is not bad and is, best of all, hot.  We are needed back on set by 2:05 pm but there proves to be time to eat, visit the toilet for a warm, and then drink tea from a polystyrene cup while walking back down to court.
  • 2:05 pm - Shooting resumes.  The cameras are in different positions again.  For the first shoot, we prosecuting solicitors are just out of shot but we do our bit without griping.  The cameras are moved again.  This time we are in shot (complete with our anachronistic haircuts) and are given some direction by the First Assistant Director.  We are the winning team.  We sit calmly, professionally, and receive the announcement of the sentence with satisfaction but without elation.  We are to glance at each other on hearing the outcome and at the accused when she behaves strangely and again at each other in reaction to her antics.  The take proceeds.  My left eyebrow overacts. 
  • 3:00 pm - I am no longer in shot for the rest of the courtroom takes as the focus is to be on the public and press galleries.  Consequently, I get to sit around in the court lobby for the rest of the afternoon.  At least it is warm.  My Beloved is given a different hair-do and loses a cardigan so that she can sit in the public gallery as a different person.  With the amount of hairspray dispensed to hold her style in place, she has been warned to stay away from naked flames (that could provide a way to keep warm!).  Her new look is this time reminiscent of my mother, at least of the way she wore her hair in the sixties.  The next couple of hours drag by for me but my Beloved and her fellow extras get to sit behind and chat with the Great Man himself.  He has no lines in the courtroom scene; he has only to indicate his opinion of the sentence by facial expression and body language.  He is a proper Actor.  Actually, that is very much the same as what I had to do.  Only not so well.  And not so well paid.  And without my own Winnebago.
  • 4:30 pm - We get sandwiches and cake (after the Important People, of course).
  • 5:00 pm - We begin filming a different scene.  This scene is outside in summer (an unseasonally cold one, clearly) and shooting it involves standing around between takes, and walking in and out of the court building in the takes, over and over again with the cameras in different positions.  One extra, playing a policeman, is in danger of his face blending into his shirt.  It proves to be extremely difficult to act warm on a freezing cold day in such a lazy wind.  Furthermore, the impending rain puts in an appearance but then decides it is too cold to hang around.  Strangely enough, the Great Man wears a raincoat for every take.  He must have been sweltering.
  • 6:50 pm - IT'S A WRAP!  The shoot is over.  We can wait while the VIPs are taken back to base, then we can walk back. 
  • 7:00 pm - We collect our belongings from the bus, go to Costume and wait in the queue to get changed in the still-cold room.
  • 7:10 pm - My beloved and I drive away knackered and with the car's heater on full-blast.
  • 7:45 pm - We arrive home, sensation returned to our extremities, and ready for a Chinese takeaway and an early night.
We have spent eleven hours, the majority of it waiting around, and mostly in the cold, to film two scenes, one of which lasts about three minutes and the other 30 seconds.  Would I do it again?  Time will tell but a warmer time of the year would certainly be preferable.  Thermal underwear would certainly have been a boon.  Maybe when I've retired and I'm short of cash and the tax-man's cut will be smaller... 

It has been interesting seeing at first hand how these things are done.  I look forward to seeing the episode and how the scene eventually turns out and if we are in it.  Knowing us, we will probably be out when it is transmitted and the recorder will fail...

22 March 2010

Man Go Shops, Feel Bad

My Beloved took me shopping on Saturday, an event that always fills me with dread.  Don't get me wrong, I don't mind shopping per se - as long as it's for electrical gadgets or shiny discs with music or games on, and as long as it fits the male shopping model (stalk your prey, make the kill, go home).  It's shopping for clothes that I hate, specifically clothes for me.  Shopping with my Beloved for clothes for me can be especially stressful.

There are two problems.  The first is that the shopping agenda is kept hidden and gets revealed in stages only as the event is in progress.  The second is that I have only a stunted and malformed dress-sense.  Let me explain what I mean.

I think we are going shopping for, say, a pair of new trousers.  I feel peace and harmony all around once the selection has been made and the agony is presumably over.  The coffee shop is in view, and the expedition has been a success.  My Beloved restores the gloom with one sentence, or even the initial fragment of it, 'While I've got you here, you need...'

On one occasion, searching for a new top coat, I tried on a shop-full until we found one that I didn't look completely stupid in.  There was not one in my size but there were other shops that stocked the same brand.  'Good,' I thought, 'at least we've narrowed the field.'  In the next shop, I found that the whole project had been rewound to the start because not only did the shop stock coats of the type we had settled on but also a whole range of other brands we had not yet seen.  O Joy!

As for dress-sense, well I grew up in the 50s and 60s, the son of a car-worker.  Whilst we were not exactly poverty-stricken, there was not a great deal of spare cash around.  As far as I remember, I had one school uniform, one set of best clothes, and one pair of jeans and a couple of tee-shirts for playing in.  I had one pair of good shoes and one pair of pumps (a cheap and unimpressive precursor to the trainer).  As for underwear and socks, I don't remember how many sets I had except that there were not enough for one a day.  Consequently, I developed a very utilitarian view of clothing.  Not only that, because of my less-than-hunky figure, things that I think look good on the hanger always look ridiculous on me.  I am Mr Average.  You'd think shopping would be easy....

Fashion has never made its mark on me.  Looking around the store on Saturday, I can only say that is not an entirely bad thing.  I saw racks of brand new jeans on sale for £65 and in a state that I would describe as ready for throwing out, having already been relegated to gardening or working under the car in.  Sixty-five pounds!  Would anyone like to buy my old jeans?  They are 36-regular and have genuine, authentic holes and stains, not your artificial, Designer ones.  One not-so-careful owner.  Make me an offer.

My Beloved however, has excellent dress-sense.  She is always well-coordinated and often complemented on her appearance (sometimes by me, when I notice).  This in itself is a good thing because I can count on her buying me good stuff.  It's also a bad thing because most things that I point out whilst shopping meet with disdain.

Anyway, on Saturday, we adopted a new approach.  I asked her to declare up front what we were going to buy so that I could set myself up for the campaign and not lose heart at an unforeseen extension of hostilities.  We also started with coffee and a doughnut.  Then we stuck to the plan, and bought a pair of Designer jeans that looked as though they had just been made from recently-woven material, and a pair of shoes that even I think look great and actually fit (don't get me started on shoes!). 

We did go into one unplanned shop to review a few ideas about decor (which I didn't mind because no decision was necessary and my Beloved is also superb with interior decoration).  Then we went home to watch the Six Nations rugby.  Result.  Win-win, even.  Although not for England.

27 February 2010

A Dog's Life - Still Going Strong!

For those of you who are interested, our dog is still with us and surprising us daily. 

He has really had only one bad day so far, on 10 February when he did something to his leg and was obviously in severe pain.  That was a traumatic day for me too, as Max stayed extremely quiet for about 24 hours; I thought the final farewell was imminent.  Thankfully, an extra dose of his medication took the edge off his pain. The next day, he suddenly sat up and declared (in doggy fashion) that he was OK and wanted to play.  He has been pretty good ever since, and has not needed extra pain-killers.

His leg is virtually useless, although he still tries to scratch his ear with it, and the tumour has grown to the extent that the leg is clearly deformed.  He has been getting around very well on three legs, and still pulls on his lead like a traction engine.  We sometimes have to jog to keep up with him!  In his head however, there is nothing wrong with him.  He still wants to go out, eat, and play with us, his toys, and other dogs, although we have to limit the extent of his exertions to avoid further injury and pain.

Although he is no longer able to run in the fields or swim in the river or jump into the car, he has adapted well to his limitations, and seems to us to be happy and enjoying a reasonably good quality of life.  The cancer is expected already to have spread to his lungs but hitherto there are no clear symptoms.  He is sometimes a bit breathless after walks but that could easily be from the effort required to lug his 43kg around on three legs...

Just how long this good spell will continue we have no idea.  We are making the most of him while we can, grateful for whatever time we have left with him, grateful that he is comfortable and, at least for now, still happy to be with us.

14 February 2010

An Open Letter to Martin Johnson

Dear Mr Johnson,

It's a good job we met Wales last week and not this. Italy played well today. We only beat them on points.

Ireland will be looking to restore some dignity; England will probably give it to them. Scotland will be spitting feathers and spoiling for a victory; England will probably give it to them. France will be going all-out for the Grand Slam; England will probably give it to them.

If it didn't work before and doesn't work now, it's time to try something else.

Praying for your miracle,

Desmond Hilary

09 February 2010

Election Lottery

So, who on Earth do we vote for in the forthcoming election?  We're all sick of labour but is there a real alternative?  What are the choices?
  • Labour - led by Gordon Brown, for me the least convincing Prime Minister of any persuasion I have known in my almost 56 years (including John Major).
  • Conservative - led by David Cameron.  In my opinion, he is a 'Sound Bite' and I have yet to discern any substance in his party.
  • Liberal Democrat - led by ... who?
  • UKIP - what do they stand for?
  • Green Party - green in anything other than green issues.
  • BNP - Fur Sie, ist der Krieg vorbei!
  • Monster Raving Loony Party - they're having a laugh.
All-in-all, not much choice.  They tell us we are electing representatives of the people.  In reality, we a forced to choose between political ideologies that do not represent our views, needs and aspirations.

I bet we have a low turn out and end up with a hung parliament.  That would be a massive victory for 'None of the Above'.

30 January 2010

25 January 2010

A Dog's Life - Nearing the End

Today, Max should have had a bone biopsy but that didn't happen. 

On our arrival at the surgery, the vet showed us the x-rays, now returned by the other practice, and it was very clear that subjecting Max to another general anaesthetic was pointless.  I had seen Max's earlier, normal-appearing x-rays in November and the sight now set before me was astonishing.  Our discussions with the vet led us to the inescapable conclusion that we were dealing with osteosarcoma, not osteomyelitis, there being no signature symptoms of the lesser condition. 

The vet to whom the x-rays had been passed for review had also commented on the risk of fracturing the leg in the process of performing the biopsy.  Even were that not to occur, Max's already weakened bone would be even more compromised by the removal of enough tissue to make the ensuing tests reliable.  With such a strong diagnosis, there was no point making Max's remaining life any shorter or less comfortable by conducting a pointless investigation.  We also declined the offer of further radiography to look for metastatic disease which may or may not have shown up but which the vet had assured us would by now almost certainly be present.

All that remains is to take Max home, keep him comfortable, and spoil him (even more) until that saddest-of-times arrives.  It will certainly be sooner than we had expected, with Max being only about 7 years old, and he showed signs last night of being less comfortable...

22 January 2010

A Dog's Life - Update

We heard today that the other vet was quite concerned but could not come to a definite conclusion about whether it was cancer or osteomyelitis.  He suggested a bone biopsy, and Max is going in on Monday for that.  There is a risk that his tibia could be fractured in the process...  That could mean losing the leg below the knee - not the worst thing on earth for a domestic dog but, hey, let's hope for the best.

Looking at Max, apart from the horribly pronounced limp and unwillingness to stand on the leg when stationary, you would not know there is anything wrong with him.  He is just getting on with being a dog (I think there's a lesson in there somewhere), and still wants to play and go for walks.  Certainly, he doesn't seem like something with advanced cancer.  He's quite comfortable, being up to his ears in pain-killers.

The vet told me today that osteomyelitis, while serious, is treatable, and he could yet have a good quality of life, even though the bone will not regain its full strength.

We're not sure how long it will be until we get the results of the biopsy but when we do we'll let you know.

21 January 2010

A Dog's Life

I cannot really explain the intensity of feeling that grips me as I write this.  Suffice it to say that tears have been shed because events I hoped lay many years in the future now potentially lie only a matter of weeks away.

Those who have followed Max's story in this blog will be aware of the difficulties he has experienced with his knees, having had major surgery to compensate for the loss of both cruciate ligaments.  Those difficulties were visited on us again in November last year when Max started limping once more on his left leg, the first he had repaired.  We returned him to the vet who had operated on him, and he agreed with us that there may have been a problem with the metal plate that had been inserted, or the degree of arthritis known to be in the joint had worsened.  Since his bones were fully repaired and the plate redundant, it was felt that the best course of action would be to take the plate out and see what happened.  The procedure was simple, and recovery straightforward.

After ten days, the stitches were removed and normal exercise resumed, perhaps a little too quickly because Max started limping again.  We slowed him down for a while, and got him a course of anti-inflammatories from the vet.  We were pleased to see he improved and got back to his normal, active self.  X-rays showed no change, so we were confident that the plate had been the problem and his post-op lameness the result of soft tissues taking time to heal.

Then came the snow which, in our area, was quickly compacted to sheet ice.  Max began sliding about and limping again.  Even worse, he began holding up his leg when standing.  We suspected more ligament damage that was not getting chance to heal because of the icy conditions.  Back to the vet we went, and more anti-inflammatories were prescribed.  Ten days later he was, if anything, worse and so yesterday we went once more to the local vet for x-rays.

The news was not good.  The x-rays showed poor bone density in his tibia, the type of condition seen in either bone cancer or osteomyelitis, neither of which has a good prognosis.  The x-rays have been sent to the other vet for comparison and clarification of the diagnosis.  If cancer is confirmed, we can expect Max to have only a few weeks to live, due to the aggressive nature of the disease.  If the other condition, there is little that can be done to restore the strength of the bone, which grows more and more likely to fracture irreparably; however long that may be held at bay, his days of charging about are over.

We expect to hear more on Friday.

He, of course, understands none of this.  We however, face losing our wonderful friend, a dearly-loved family member.  Oh, how painful that thought is.  Oh, how we shall miss him...

09 January 2010

Snow - Wonderful Stuff

Snow - wonderful stuff.

This was New Year's day 2010. Six inches of snow fell overnight.  We had been to a New Year's bash overnight and could not get our car back home.  The last part of our journey was on foot through this winter wonderland.  Mind you, the driving was a challenge...

Since then, we've had another 3 inches or so, and more is forecast.

04 January 2010

How to Drive in Snow

Since parts of the UK are gripped in the ravages of winter once more, I thought I would publish this sound advice for people who need to drive in icy conditions.  I've also followed these simple rules with explanations for their importance.
  1. Stay at home.
  2. Drive much slower than you would if there were no snow.
  3. Leave much more space between you and the car in front.
  4. Keep engine revs low.
  5. Use the highest gear possible without labouring the engine (1 is low, 5 is high).
  6. Don't brake, steer or accelerate suddenly or harshly.
  7. To slow the car, ease your foot off the accelerator and change down through the gears rather than using the brakes.
  8. If you skid, turn into the skid to straighten the car (i.e., if your back-end goes left, steer left, if it goes right, steer right).
  9. If you have skidded, you are going too fast.  Slow down by easing off the gas.
  10. Show other road users some patience.  Watch out for pedestrians.
  11. Roads that were ploughed and gritted yesterday may well be less safe today.
I have been prompted to publish this because of my experiences over the Christmas/New Year period.  People driving cars with four-wheel drive and ABS (Automatic Breaking System) seem to think they are immune to the hazards of snow and ice.  They are not.  In fact, ABS is useless on ice and, if you have four wheels on a sheet of ice, you have no guarantee that four-wheel drive will keep you moving in your chosen direction.  People get too close and drive too fast.  Even if you are immune, the car in front may not be; if the car in front gets into difficulty, and you are too close and too fast, you will hit it.

Here is some explanation of the rules.
  1. You are much safer in your home (unless your home is on a very icy bend!).
  2. You must do everything smoothly and slowly or you will lose control.  You must therefore reduce the chances of losing control by giving yourself time to act.
  3. Other people may lose control and you have to react to the situation ahead of you.  You must therefore give yourself enough space (and thus time).
  4. The point of this is to reduce the power being delivered to the driving wheels.  More power means more likelihood of losing grip.  For the same reason, it is a good idea to allow a cold engine to warm up before setting off so that the automatic choke is no longer raising your engine speed.
  5. This also reduces power at the wheels.  Get out of first as soon as you are moving, or even pull away in second.  If your car will pull in third once moving, use third as soon as you can.
  6. Steering, braking and acceleration rely on your tyres having grip on the road.  Move too suddenly and you will come unstuck.
  7. Using the gears in this way will keep your wheels turning but slow the car down.  Using the brakes will lock the wheels and slide you into the ditch.  You need space and time for this (see rules 2 & 3).
  8. Steering into the skid keeps the front of your car in front of the back.  If your car has rear-wheel drive you may like to put a couple of bags of sand in the boot.  This weighs down the back end, giving it more traction and inertia, making it less likely to slide about.
  9. Speed is your enemy.  Better to arrive at your destination late than explain your sudden appearance to your Maker.  Better late than 'late'.
  10. You may feel confident, others may not.  You may think you know what you are doing.  Be aware that others do not or are very nervous on ice.  If you lose patience, you will become a danger to yourself and others.  Pedestrians use the road because the paths are not clear.  They tend to wear inappropriate footwear and can slip into your path without warning.  They are soft and squishy. 
  11. Snow blows about.  More snow falls.  Salt washes away.  You never really know what you are driving on.  Never assume anything.
Here are some extra pointers.  Take a spade in case you need to dig yourself out.  Take extra clothing in case you get stranded; some boots in case you have to walk.  Take a phone.  Take some lengths of carpet with you: if you can't get out of a rut, put the carpets on the ground in front of and touching your drive-wheels (if you are trying to go forwards) and drive over them.  Don't leave them behind in case you need them again.

I hope someone finds this helpful.  Unless your journey is absolutely necessary, stay at home.  If you must drive, be a safer driver.