28 December, 2013

Before Sunrise/Sunset

A couple of my all time favourite films are "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset", starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. For those of you who don't know, these two films are set ten years apart. The first, "Before Sunrise", sketches the two protagonists who, in their early twenties, meet on a train travelling across Europe and, strongly attracted to one another, alight together in Vienna. They have a few hours in one another's company--before sunrise--before Hawke has to board a plane back to the States.

They spend this time wandering the streets of Vienna, getting to know one another, weaving in and out of music shops, parks, and bars. At the end of their few hours together, Hawke sees Delpy onto a train home and they hurriedly agree to meet again in exactly a year's time in the very same place (no texting or Facebook in those days!).

"Before Sunset" catches up with the couple ten years later in Paris when Hawke is doing a book signing at Delpy's favourite bookshop. Delpy turns up at the signing and surprises Hawke (predictably, they didn't manage to meet again in Vienna). Both are unhappy--Hawke trapped in a loveless marriage and Delpy still seeking that elusive perfect relationship.

This time they wander the streets of Paris and talk. The attraction is still there. The film closes with Hawke in Delpy's apartment, laughing, already having missed his plane back to the States and his wife and son.

What I love about these two films is the dialogue and the oh-so-recognisable depiction of how people change over time. In "Before Sunrise" you can really see the couple becoming closer and more relaxed with one another as they talk about anything and everything. In true twenty-something fashion they cover the 'big' issues -- the environment, women's lib, the nature of love, reincarnation. They are open, optimistic. They have nothing to lose and everything ahead of them.

By the time we meet them again, they have lost that optimism. They have become jaded; they have acquired some hard edges. They have come to realise that life is not that easy and that whatever they thought at twenty-one, life is no longer their oyster. They can still talk, though, but this time their conversation is more direct, more gritty. The romanticism of early youth has dissipated.

I recently liberated my Before Sunrise/Sunset box set (yes, sad, I know!) and watched the films again. I still love them and my husband and I got talking about what might have happened to Hawke and Delpy next. I did a quick bit of internet research the next day and was delighted to see that another film has just been released--"Before Midnight"--in which we meet the couple another ten years on, in their early forties. "Before Midnight" went straight on my LoveFilm list and I can't wait to see it!

I wonder whether there will be another film in another ten years, when the couple are in their early fifties--and what the title of that one might be?!

22 December, 2013

A grand day out at the National

Last weekend we (my husband, myself and our kids) had a treat and were taken to see 'Emil and the Detectives' at the National Theatre by my parents in law.

The play was very good -- fairly low on plot complexity (which is what you'd expect from a children's story, I suppose), but extremely well directed. Lots of clever scenery, the inevitable chase through the audience, and a huge cast of children with excellent acting ability displayed by those in speaking parts.

After the play we were spoilt even further and taken to the Mezzanine Restaurant at the National. We had a lovely meal--the food there is always first class, especially the freshly baked bread--and the kids benefited from the new children's menu. They chose chicken and chips followed by ice cream, which suited them perfectly.

So, we all had rather a grand day out at the National!

15 December, 2013

Nightmare month at work

I've had a nightmare month at work. There have been many things that have been irritating, but the worst has been the new release of my work's purchasing system, which was introduced at the beginning of November.

You would think that this might be a relatively straightforward exercise--simply transfer the users on the old system to the new system, ensuring that they have the same access rights and responsibilities as previously. But no, no, no.

Some people were OK and could use the new system no problem. But many were not OK. Take my situation--I was a shopper and an approver in the old system. In the new system I can approve (but only by clicking on the 'approve' link in the automated email that the system sends, not by actually going into the system itself!), but I have no shopping responsibility whatsoever.

I have been chasing this up tirelessly, as has the Head of Finance in my department, but to no avail. The systems team simply come back each time saying that I am not a migrating user, i.e. was not a user on the old system. BUT I WAS! Can't they just look at the old system and see that?!

It seems that the solution for me to be able to shop is to do lots of classroom-based training (I've already done lots of online training), including the training for new users -- WHICH I'M NOT!!

So, in the new year, rather than getting on with any real work, I'll be attending various training sessions which I don't actually need. What a ridiculous waste of time!

08 December, 2013

Job interviews

I have a lot of experience of job interviews -- both experience of sitting on interview panels and of being interviewed myself -- and they always strike me as distinctly weighted in favour of the employer.

Clearly, interviews provide an opportunity for employers to decide whether or not a candidate is to their liking and whether or not they want to hire that person. But I'm also of the opinion that interviews should provide an opportunity for candidates to find out whether or not a hiring company is to their liking (and careers advisers and the like will certainly tell candidates that they should treat interviews as such).

Of course, you can often get a pretty good idea of whether you want to work for a company from  the interview. However, it seems to me that it is nearly always the company, rather than the candidate, who retains the power in this situation. For starters, the company will be interviewing several candidates, not just the one--and in this climate you can bet your bottom dollar that there will be more than one candidate who the company considers 'appointable'. Secondly, interviewers (and others) may encourage candidates to ask questions, but in my experience certain types of question are often not welcome. At interviews, I make a point of asking the questions 'What's it like to work here? What's the culture like?' in an attempt to understand what the people are like and whether the company would be a congenial place to work. Yet these questions often meet with looks of surprise or indirect, meaningless answers. They are simple enough questions and my sense is that (many) employers simply don't like being asked such things. It is, however, considered perfectly acceptable for an interview panel to ask a candidate very similar questions. 'What are your three strongest and your three weakest points?' is a good example.

And then you come to the business of informing candidates of the panel's decision after the interviews. The successful candidate is informed very quickly, of course, but those who are unsuccessful can wait several weeks before being informed, and then this is usually via a standard email from the HR team with no opportunity given to seek feedback. I can't imagine that it would go down too well if a successful candidate kept a company in suspense, taking several weeks to respond to their offer of employment!

When I sit on an interview panel, I do my best to answer candidates' questions as openly and honestly as I can. I also let unsuccessful candidates know the outcome quickly myself, ahead of the impersonal email from the HR team. Not only is this the decent way to treat people who have taken the time and trouble to attend for interview, but it also gives the company the reputation for being decent and honest.

It's just a shame more employers don't seem to see things the same way.


03 December, 2013

Seven day price drop for "Travels on a Greyhound Bus"

My novel "Travels on a Greyhound Bus" will be available for just 99 cents/99 pence for a seven day period from 6--12 December.

This is an easy, fun read about how relationships change over time and how people react when those relationships come under pressure. It has some good independent reviews from Laura's Book Reviews and Kirsty I Heart Books, as well as good reviews on Amazon.

You can download  "Travels on a Greyhound Bus" at Amazon UK and Amazon.com.

The blurb follows below:

People change. Relationships evolve. But sometimes by too much...

Hip students Araminta Stewart and Giles Richmond meet entirely by chance when travelling around the USA by Greyhound Bus. They hit it off. Some twenty years later, they are married with three children and have reached a crisis point in their relationship.

Araminta thought she knew what she wanted all those years ago. But now she’s got it, is she really happy? Or could there be more to life than this?

Told from Araminta’s point of view, "Travels on a Greyhound Bus" follows the couple as they navigate these two very different periods in their lives. While their early relationship flourishes, their later relationship appears to be disintegrating.

Faced with disappointment, frustration and the biggest challenge to their marriage yet, the question is: will Araminta and Giles’ relationship survive the journey of a lifetime?

23 November, 2013

Changes, changes

I have been a customer of Lloyds Bank for longer than I care to remember. When I first signed up at the tender age of sixteen and deposited my first few pounds, it was just Lloyds pure and simple. No association with any other banks. And the logo was the good old fashioned black horse. The Lloyds black horse looked, back then, like a 'proper' horse with a long, flowing mane and tail. It had nothing remotely in common looks-wise with the prehistoric white horse at Uffington. And, indeed, the television advertising featured a beautiful, galloping, jet black horse.

Some ten years later, Lloyds Bank merged with the TSB and became Lloyds TSB -- although I still, determinedly, continued to refer to it by its old name of Lloyds. At around the same time, the logo underwent a transformation. The 'real' black horse morphed into a mere representation of a horse, bearing more than a passing resemblance to the white horse at Uffington. And, of course, the television advertising no longer featured the beautiful, galloping specimen.

Now, in 2013, it appears that we have come full circle. Lloyds Bank and the TSB have disentangled themselves once more. The old fashioned Lloyds black horse has been reinstated (I wonder how much the advertising company charged for that stroke of genius?). And, what's really funny is that all of this is being marketed as if it's completely novel and has never been thought of before.

But I remember back to pre-1995 when the situation was exactly as it is now in 2013 -- and I'm not that old, so I'm sure plenty of others remember too. Funny old world...

17 November, 2013

Changes to GCSEs

The government recently announced changes to the GCSE examinations in England -- the biggest overhaul "for a generation", to coin their words.

Some of the basic changes are as follows:
  • A new grading system based on numbers (1-9) rather than the current system based on letters (A*-G).
  • Modular assessments to be replaced by full exams taken at the end of the two years of study.
  • In English literature students will study texts in detail and these will include high-quality works by authors such as Shakespeare and the Romantic poets.
  • There will be more marks awarded for spelling, punctuation and grammar.
  • The new maths exam will cover more topics and be more challenging.
For those of us who took the old O' level exams at sixteen--over "a generation" ago, I suppose--these changes sound very familiar. O' levels had no course work whatsoever and one final exam was taken for each subject at the end of the two years of study. Correct spelling, grammar and punctuation were regarded as very important and marks awarded accordingly. Some of the maths questions that were set in the O' level exam were genuinely hard, even for those people who were good mathematicians. And we certainly studied "high-quality" literature--always a Shakespeare play and a selection of other classics. In fact, I wonder what English literature is all about if students don't study (at least some) "high-quality" texts.

So, it's not so much a major change to GCSEs, rather a major reversion to the old system of a generation ago. Plus ça change...

08 November, 2013

Fireworks -- now and then

We went to see a fireworks display at the weekend. It was great fun -- lots of food stalls, activities for the kids, live music, a laser light show, and a bonfire. And, yes, the fireworks were good too. A really professional display with lots of impressive fireworks set off in very quick succession, creating quite a picture.

My only complaint about fireworks these days is that they're over so quickly. When I was a kid, there were very few professional displays, so it was usually a case of going round to a friend's house where there was a big garden and intrepid parents. There was a bonfire (often barely under control), hot chocolate and undercooked jacket potatoes, and sparklers. But the fireworks display always took an inordinate amount of time because the fireworks were set off very slowly one at a time by adults who didn't know what they were doing. And, of course, many of the fireworks that you could buy in those days simply didn't go off at all. But it all added to the atmosphere.

There was a bit of a health and safety issue back in those days, of course. Uncontrolled fire, incompetent people in charge of fireworks, children running around unchecked. It wasn't so great, after all, but it's always interesting to compare now with then, particularly where health and safety is concerned.

03 November, 2013

Very successful free promotion!

My first free promotion for my novel "Travels on a Greyhound Bus" finished at eight o'clock this morning, and it was a good one.

I had over 3,000 downloads, the book stormed into the Amazon.com free charts at #2 in the Family Life genre, and someone who had downloaded the book during its free period read it immediately and gave it a five star review! Throughout the free period, "Travels" fluctuated between #2 and #5 in Family Life, and #7 and #18 in Women's Fiction. Result!

Having been sceptical at first, I have to say that I now really enjoy the whole independent publishing scene. I have two books independently published so far and am working on a third. I love the freedom that you have to design your book how you want to, to price it as you wish, to decide whether and how to run free promotions. And I love the speed of the whole process -- once you've decided to publish, you can just go ahead and do it.

Despite the success of this promotion, there is one thing that I do find frustrating.You can never quite work out why your promotion has gone well. So, this book did really well in the US during its promotional period, but less well in the UK, whereas my other book, "A Matter of Degree", did much better in the UK in its free promotional period. Why? I don't know.

But maybe that's a perennial marketing problem, rather than an independent publishing one. Maybe its never that clear why one approach goes well and another less well. Still, if the formula works, stick to it -- and that's what I intend to do!

28 October, 2013

"Travels on a Greyhound Bus" FREE 29 October -- 2 November

My second novel "Travels on a Greyhound Bus" is FREE on Amazon from 29 October until 2 November.

This is an easy, fun read about how relationships change over time and how people react when those relationships come under pressure. It has some good independent reviews from Laura's Book Reviews and Kirsty I Heart Books, and has 4.6 stars on Amazon.

You can download  "Travels on a Greyhound Bus" at Amazon UK and Amazon.com.

The blurb follows below:

People change. Relationships evolve. But sometimes by too much...

Hip students Araminta Stewart and Giles Richmond meet entirely by chance when travelling around the USA by Greyhound Bus. They hit it off. Some twenty years later, they are married with three children and have reached a crisis point in their relationship.

Araminta thought she knew what she wanted all those years ago. But now she’s got it, is she really happy? Or could there be more to life than this?
Told from Araminta’s point of view, "Travels on a Greyhound Bus" follows the couple as they navigate these two very different periods in their lives. While their early relationship flourishes, their later relationship appears to be disintegrating.

Faced with disappointment, frustration and the biggest challenge to their marriage yet, the question is: will Araminta and Giles’ relationship survive the journey of a lifetime?

26 October, 2013

The joys of ‘modern’ banking

Usually I do my banking at my local bank branch. This is situated in a smallish market town and is suitably old fashioned. It is very much non-open-plan, with glass panels lining the counter and interview rooms with doors that can be closed so that you can conduct your business in private. I like it there. It’s small enough that you get really good customer service yet big enough that all the services you might need are on offer.

Recently, I visited the branch in the city in which I work. This has always been quite different from my local—very large and busy, full of people, and distinctly lacking in customer service. However, this time I got even more of a shock—the bank had been revamped. It was now open plan. No glass frontage. No interview rooms —just open alcoves from which anything that is being discussed can, presumably, be overheard by all and sundry. And—the biggest surprise of all—upbeat music playing quite loudly throughout the branch.

When I was next in my local, the staff member who was looking after me asked if I’d been into the city branch recently and seen the changes there. I confirmed that I had, and commented on the music. She said the theory is that if music is playing, the customers are distracted and so don’t listen to the other customers’ conversations (i.e. don’t overhear their business).

Something doesn’t seem quite right here. The bank has been made open plan, which most people are unlikely to be keen on because, let’s face it, who wants to conduct their private business in public? So, to solve that issue, the powers that be have decided to pipe music through the speakers—surely a less effective way of keeping customers’ private business private than a closed door.

But why make the bank open plan in the first place? Is it something to do with making it less intimidating and more welcoming? But what about security? It’s pretty easy to threaten bank staff who have no glass protecting them, after all.

I’d rather you gave me good, old-fashioned layout and good, old-fashioned customer service any time!

19 October, 2013

Scooby Dooby Doo!

My kids were watching Scooby Doo on TV recently. I always rather approve of this, since I used to watch Scooby Doo on TV as a kid as well, and have good memories of it. The mystery; the constant sparring between Scooby and Shaggy; the denouement at the end that invariably seemed to involve the dramatic unmasking of the manager of the theme park/hotel/museum/whatever...

In a break in cooking the evening meal, I sat down with my kids to catch a bit of the programme. It all looked pretty familiar, but then I realised that something wasn't quite right... Scooby and Shaggy were poring over a laptop. Well, laptops sure as hell didn't exist in the 70s when I used to watch! And then I realised that Scooby was talking. Yes, talking. Not the grunts that he used to come out with, but actual, complex conversation!

Well, well. My nostalgia trip was shattered. Scooby Doo had been revamped. Today's series may look similar to, but it certainly isn't the same as, the original that I grew up with. It seems strange in a way. Why not stick with the original rather than update it? Or create something entirely different and new instead?

12 October, 2013

Same sex weddings and the greeting card industry

We recently attended a same sex wedding party--our first ever, in fact. A colleague of my husband's was marrying his partner and we were invited to stage three--the drinks and disco after the wedding breakfast after the ceremony.

I was charged with buying a card for the event and, surprisingly, this proved quite tricky. Despite the greeting card industry's typical keenness to get us purchasing cards for every conceivable occasion, when it comes to same sex weddings, it seems they haven't quite caught up. Oh, there are plenty of wedding cards out there, but they are almost all, quite clearly, targeted at traditional bride-and-groom scenarios. Lots of pictures of happy male and female couple, lots of high heeled shoes, lots of glitter and sparkle and pink...

In the end, after visiting several shops, I happened upon a turquoise-coloured card sporting the words 'Woo hoo, you've finally tied the knot!' A little bit of white glitter, but not too much. It had to do.

But, hey, greeting card companies, I think you've missed a trick here. You currently seem only to be catering for part of the wedding market. And my guess is that the part you're neglecting is set to grow and grow.

05 October, 2013

Women at work

Last week, my blog post was about potential sexism towards men. This week, I have some observations about potential sexism towards women.

We were recently travelling home by plane from the south of France. When the captain gave the usual introductory spiel prior to take off, I was pleased to note that she was a woman. I don't know why that pleased me -- it shouldn't really make a difference. But I guess I like to see a woman doing what has been traditionally construed as 'a man's job'. I also feel unaccountably safer -- something to do with women being less likely to take risks, I think. Probably rationally untrue in this situation, but, anyway, that's how I feel.

One of the cabin crew was a rather jokey male. When we were up in the air and he was pushing the drinks trolley down the aisle, he inadvertently banged into someone's seat. With a grin, he apologised to the (male) passenger: 'Terribly sorry, sir...but you know how it is with these female drivers!' The plane was flying very smoothly at the time and the steward was laughing. He was clearly making a joke.

I smiled to myself, but then got thinking. Was this in fact a sexist remark, even though it was said in jest? Have we yet advanced far enough away from sexism towards women in the workplace that this was acceptable, rather than offensive? And then there was the fact that the remark had been made by a black man. Is it more acceptable for people from groups who have been suppressed in the past to make jokes about people from other similarly repressed groups?

It seemed like I'd entered a quagmire and there was no clear cut answer in sight. Not that I was looking for one, to be honest. I took the remark in good humour and that's how I believe it was meant. Interesting material for a blog article, though!

28 September, 2013

Men at work

I'm not easily shocked, but I was rather surprised by something a friend (let's call her Jane)  recently said to me.

A mutual friend of Jane and mine was having her garden remodelled and the work was being carried out by three young men. They were probably good looking, no doubt well toned (given the nature of their jobs), and certainly tanned because it was high summer. One hot afternoon, these young men were toiling away in our friend's garden, tops off due to the heat. Our friend happened to be at home and was clearly enjoying this spectacle because she rang Jane and invited her round for a cup of tea to view the three lithe bodies of display.

This seemed a bit much to me, really. I can understand noticing and quietly appreciating the spectacle by oneself, but inviting someone else round to, frankly, ogle seems to me to be taking things a little too far. If a couple of men did this to a group of women, it would be called sexist. So isn't it sexist in reverse as well? Or are our standards really that double?

21 September, 2013

Sunflowers

Earlier this year, we had our garden redesigned and, as part of this process, we planted some new plants in the garden at the beginning of the summer.

We decided to involve our kids in this exercise and each of them was allowed to choose some seeds to plant. Our youngest daughter chose sunflower seeds. It said on the packet that the plants could grow up to seven feet tall, but we didn't really quite believe that. We'd seen lots of sunflowers that were much shorter--around three feet or so--and in full flower.

Our daughter duly planted the seeds and they did, indeed, grow and grow and grow. And they didn't actually flower until the second week in September when they were, as the packet had predicted, around seven feet tall. So, our cunning plan of creating some summer colour in our new garden had failed.

It was lovely to have colour in September, of course, but next year I think we'll give the sunflowers a miss. We'll perhaps instead aim for something that flowers a little earlier. And grows a little less.

14 September, 2013

Holiday forgetfulness

While writing my recent blog post on holidaying in Nice, I was struck by the transitory nature of experience and the inadequacy of our memories.

It's a common experience to find that, as soon as you're back from holiday, it seems like you've never been away. It's as if all that lovely relaxation, sightseeing, soaking up the sun, or whatever else you've done has just evaporated into thin air. Almost as if it never happened.

Yet I find that I have an additional problem -- actually remembering what I've done while away on holiday. Of course, as soon as you come into work, people ask you how it was, what you did, etc. And I find that I'm struggling to answer these questions because I can't actually remember.

This year I decided to prepare for this eventuality. On holiday, at the end of each day, I wrote down what we had done and the places that we'd visited. This certainly helped, the very act of writing my experiences down somehow better etching them in my mind. Yet, when I came to write my blog post about Nice, I still found myself diving for my copy of the Rough Guide to check that I'd got the details right.

Maybe I'm just getting too old to remember properly. Or maybe my mind is already too full with all the work, family, etc., etc. stuff that I have to carry around with me and remember every day...

07 September, 2013

Back to school

It was back to school this week for both my kids, so as soon as we returned home from holiday, we ran through the usual pre-school round of bag packing, checking name labels, thinking about what to buy for packed lunches, etc., etc. Back to reality...

However, for my oldest, it wasn't just a new year in the same school, but a different school altogether. She started at secondary. (I still can't believe that we have reached this stage so quickly. It seems not that long ago that she was a newborn baby...)

I had the honour of doing the first day of the secondary school run and, although my daughter was a little apprehensive, what really struck me was how nervous I felt. It was as if it was my first day in a new job, or perhaps my first day at a new school (although in truth, my memory doesn't stretch back that far and I have no idea how I felt on my first day of secondary school).

Despite the fact that my kids are growing up and becoming more independent by the day, it's interesting how close the connection between us remains.

01 September, 2013

Holidaying in Nice

We recently came back from holiday and, between loading seemingly endless piles of dirty laundry into the washing machine (despite the fact that we did quite a bit of washing on holiday--how does that always happen??), I found time to think for a few minutes about the place that we visited.

We stayed in an apartment overlooking Nice with a beautiful, clean pool that the kids loved. Nice wouldn't necessarily have been my top choice of holiday destination (it was just one of the destinations available to us using our Tesco Clubcard vouchers--see my earlier blog post), but in fact we had a great time and it's somewhere I'd thoroughly recommend.

For a start, the weather was comfortable in August--sunny and around 30 degrees. In the past we've had problems with extreme heat (almost 40 degrees one year in Malta, for example) which the kids didn't enjoy and which has been too much, even for us. But in Nice it was warm enough to really enjoy swimming in the (cold!) pool, but not so hot as to make sightseeing a chore rather than a pleasure.

We quickly settled into a pattern that suited everyone--mornings by the pool followed by afternoons visiting some kind of attraction. And there was a lot to see in and close to Nice. Again, a real bonus, as the kids tend not to enjoy long, hot car journeys when we're on holiday.

There's quite a bit of modern art to see in the area and, although we're not usually gallery buffs, we visited a number of exhibitions and all really enjoyed them. The kids were very interested in the abstract art and were so inspired, in fact, that they started creating their own modern art with paper and felt tips when we got back to our apartment. One art museum that I particularly enjoyed was the Musee Picasso in Antibes, where the building was probably even more stunning than the art--lovely light and airy rooms, and beautiful views over the sea.

Ancient walled towns tumbling down the hillside are common in this area, and two particularly beautiful ones that we visited were Eze and Vence. We also saw a fair few Romanesque churches boasting stunning paintings and altarpieces.

And a couple of the buildings that we visited really stick in my mind. First, the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild in Cap Ferrat--a mansion built at the beginning of the twentieth century for Baroness Beatrice de Rothschild. The gardens are particularly beautiful, inspired by different kinds of gardens from across the globe and culminating, in front of the house, in a lake and musical fountains (the water 'dances' in time to various classical pieces). The second was the Villa Grecque at Beaulieu-sur-Mer--a faithful reconstruction of a 2nd century BC Greek noble house, which was the brainchild of archaeologist Theodore Reinach.

All in all, a busy but very enjoyable holiday!

24 August, 2013

The effect of alcohol

At a work dinner recently, I was struck by the effect that alcohol has on people. I don't really need to say this, of course. We're all aware that people can be affected very strongly by alcohol--getting blind drunk, throwing up in the street, waking up in the morning not remembering what they've done the night before...

But I was struck by the more subtle effect that alcohol can have.

I work with a  bunch of academics who are generally quite shy. They like talking shop (geeky science), but when it comes to interacting socially, really talking to people one on one, building relationships, they're not so good. And, since I'm not a scientist, and so can't talk scientific shop, they're generally at a bit of a loss with me.

However, at our work dinner, this all changed. With a few glasses of wine inside them, they suddenly came alive, engaging me in conversation about all sorts of things.

A bit later on in the evening, the conversation turned to alcohol and one of my newly-talkative colleagues said he thought it was interesting how the British needed alcohol in order to have a good time (he was drawing a comparison with his time living in the States where, he said, his American colleagues managed to have a good time, even without the aid of alcohol!).

His remarks made me smile. I'd consumed barely a glass of wine, was still sober, and had managed to have a good time, conversing with my colleagues in much the same way as I do at work. I felt that his observations may have more to do with his own personal state of mind, rather than being an accurate reflection of the national identity.

18 August, 2013

A day out at Chessington

It was my daughter's birthday recently and, rather than have a party, she decided that she would like a day out en famille at Chessington World of Adventures. So we duly booked the tickets. Tesco Clubcard vouchers to the rescue once again!

Now, we're not a family who often visits theme parks. In fact, we've only visited the one: Legoland a couple of years ago. We made the mistake there of going on the Jolly Rocker as our first ride. Not so jolly, as it turned out--iffy tummies and shattered nerves all round. So, we knew what to avoid at Chessington...

These are some of the things we did:

  • We went on the Zufari, which was a very short truck ride round a dusty circuit to see a handful of animals--a giraffe, a a rhino and a couple of zebra. It was all very orchestrated--we went 'off route' at the end of the ride which took us through a (man made) cave in which we briefly stopped and were splashed with water from a 'waterfall'. Hence the wet floor of the truck when we got in... The waiting time for the Zufari was 45 minutes but they'd done their best to make it 'authentic'--right down to the fake dried and cracked mud path on which we queued.
  • We watched the sea lion show, which was impressive. It's amazing what the sea lions can do. In the back of my mind, I wondered whether the show was cruel. But the sea lions appeared to be very happy and, as their handlers pointed out, they are intelligent animals and the training stretches them mentally as well as providing physical exercise...which is more than can be said for the big cats which you see in enclosures in these places with no space for anything other than prowling. That, I am sure, is cruel.
  • We didn't go on many rides as such and all of those that we did try were pretty tame--the jungle bus, the log flume and the carousel. Thankfully we avoided another Jolly Rocker experience.
The children had a good time at Chessington, I think, and so did the adults--although I have to say that it's not something I'd choose to do, given an option. There's something about the whole theme park concept--the endless queueing, the going on stomach churning rides simply for the thrill of being scared, the entirely artificial environment (what on earth is the point of it all?)--that I just don't quite 'get'.

11 August, 2013

Hospital aftercare

Some time ago, I wrote a blog post about psychiatric hospitals and what it is like visiting a relative who is detained there.

Something else that we have become familiar with over the past few months is the after care that people receive once they are released from psychiatric hospital. This support is (predictably, I suppose, given the strain that the NHS is currently under) pretty minimal.

Our relative was released from hospital, but was still detained under the Mental Health Act. This meant that they were obligated by law to take the medication prescribed by their psychiatrist and to comply with any request to attend out patient clinics or indeed to return to hospital.

But the only support or monitoring they received was one visit per week from a psychiatric nurse. And when it was half term and the nurse was on holiday, our relative received no visit at all. Shortly afterwards, our relative was discharged from detention under the Mental Health Act.

Interestingly, our relative reduced the medication that they were taking as soon as they were released from hospital and stopped taking it altogether within a few days of being at home. This was obvious to us and so was surely obvious to the mental health experts as well. But it seemed to make no difference. Our relative was still discharged from detention under the Mental Health Act on the understanding that they would continue to take their medication -- even though they had already stopped taking it when they were still obligated by law to do so!

This is obviously a very difficult area to manage. It's all about balancing the safety of the public against the liberty and rights of the patient. I don't think our relative ever posed much of a threat to the public, but clearly some people with severe mental health issues do. And, given our experience of care and support following release from hospital, it's not surprising that sometimes poor judgements are made and tragic consequences result.


04 August, 2013

Human bingo: never broken a limb?!

We had our work annual retreat the other day. This involves the whole of our department going away to a hotel for two days to talk business without the interruption of everyday working life.

The first day usually starts off with some kind of ice-breaking activity, and this year it was human bingo. Yes, I know, I didn't have a clue what this was either... But I soon found out.

Human bingo involves everyone having a sheet of questions (there are about three different versions of the sheet involving different questions). The aim of the game is for each person to go around the room trying to find a person who can answer 'yes' to one of these questions. Questions are things along the lines of  'Have you seen all the episodes of Friends?' and 'Have you ever been camping?' The first person to have 'yes' answers to all of the questions on their sheet shouts 'Bingo!' and is the winner.

What I found really interesting, though, was that one of the questions on my sheet was 'Have you ever broken a limb?' Try as hard as I might, I couldn't find someone who could answer yes to that particular question. In a room of around 40 people, I thought that was pretty unusual. And I wondered whether it had something to do with the type of people in the room--academics who are far more interested in dealing in the cerebral than the physical.

Not that I can talk--I haven't broken a limb either!

27 July, 2013

Four star review for "Travels on a Greyhound Bus"!

Many thanks to Kirsty Greenwood who runs book review blog: I Heart Books! She has just reviewed my novel "Travels on a Greyhound Bus" and given it a sparkly 4 out of 5, finding it to be a "thought provoking read". You can read her review here.

You can also find an interview with me on Kirsty's blog, in which I talk about my books, writing, and my experience of the publishing process.

Thank you Kirsty!

21 July, 2013

In self defence...

I recently took a short self-defence course. Up until now, this was something that I had always thought would be a good thing to do, but I'd never before been offered the opportunity and had not been sufficiently serious to seek out such courses for myself.

However, my daughter is a brown belt in karate and her club sent an email around to all the parents of their junior members offering an SOS (safe on the street) course for women. I booked, thinking that this was my opportunity and that I really shouldn't miss it.

I turned up on the day somewhat apprehensive. After all, I've never attacked anyone in my life and my exercise of choice is somewhat different--a combination of yoga and swimming.

The course itself was good. We learnt straightforward things like how to spot and avoid trouble, how to handle more than one attacker, and how to disable an attacker by punching or kicking them in vulnerable areas. The course ended by each person having to fend off an 'attack' by one of the trainers in a darkened room after having been tired out and disorientated.

It was certainly a useful thing to have done and I now have a good idea of what to do to defend myself, but I can't really say that I enjoyed it.

Something that I found interesting was the different approaches and attitudes of different people on the course. Some took it light-heartedly, while others took it terribly seriously. And the person with whom I was partnered seemed to think she knew it all and was in a position to criticise my technique, despite the fact that she had no experience in this area and didn't appear to be doing brilliantly herself!

Oh well, it takes all sorts, I suppose...even in self defence!

14 July, 2013

Cameras: an indicator of age?!

Another age related post—this seems to be becoming something of a theme!

This time it’s about cameras.

I was sitting in a work meeting the other day when someone announced that he would be willing to take a photo of the group using a “film camera”. Shock, horror! It was apparent that this guy considered this type of camera to be something rather unusual, something rather old fashioned, in fact. And it transpired that it’s a hobby of his to take photos with a film camera.

The thing is, although I’ve used a digital camera for some years now, still, when I think about it, this seems a little strange to me. I grew up before digital cameras were around and so my first cameras were, inevitably, non-digital. I still occasionally find it odd that, in order to view my holiday snaps, I no longer need to get a film developed.

Quite the opposite was true for my colleague, of course.

I suppose that’s the outcome of working with a group of people the majority of whom are (at least) ten years younger than me...

09 July, 2013

"A Matter of Degree" tops the bestseller lists!

I ran a four-day free promotion for my book "A Matter of Degree" last week and it went fantastically. At its peak, my book reached #3 in Contemporary Fiction and #4 in Women's Fiction in the Amazon.com free Kindle books charts. And downloads were in the thousands.

I hadn't expected this at all. And, as all authors who do free promotions will tell you, it's impossible to know why a particular promotion goes so well. But, whatever the reason, I am very, very pleased.

So far, paid downloads after the promotion are also doing well. So fingers crossed this continues!

You can download your copy of "A Matter of Degree" from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

07 July, 2013

The problem with hospitals: a very personal experience

My elderly mother recently had a spell in hospital. It was a pretty standard story for someone who is almost eighty--she fell while doing some cleaning at home, couldn't get up again and had to call 999. She was diagnosed with a fractured hip and had to have an operation to mend the fracture, which necessitated her staying in hospital for a short period.

We are hearing a lot at the moment about the poor state that our hospitals are in--how A&E departments are near breaking point, how low standards of care can be. My experience of my mother's spell in hospital gave me a very personal perspective on this state of affairs.

I live a two-hour drive away from my mother and I am the only relative (my mother has no other children and she divorced years ago). This means that all responsibility in this kind of situation falls on me. I don't mind this at all, but it does mean that I need people to be understanding and, sometimes, flexible.

The visiting hours on my mother's ward were 2.30 until 4.30. I needed to visit my mother during the week (as soon as possible after she'd been admitted) so that I could see her and collect some things that she needed from her flat. I also needed to be back home in time to pick up my kids from school. So, visiting hours of 2.30 until 4.30 were no good to me at all. I explained all this over the phone to the staff nurse (Jan) and she said that she couldn't give me permission to visit outside visiting hours on my planned day because she wouldn't be there then. She advised that I ring the ward before I set off on the day that I planned to visit to check with the staff nurse on duty then that it would be alright for me to come.

I did exactly as I was told--rang the ward number before I left. The ward phone was answered by an answerphone telling me that the ward couldn't take routine patient enquiries between 7 and 11.30 am (!) but that if my call was an emergency, I could ring an alternative number.

I rang the alternative, emergency number...and rang and rang. I must have tried about six times before I left and then again several times en route. The phone was never picked up. And this was the EMERGENCY line!!

When I eventually arrived at the ward, I was met by rude and unhelpful staff. They implied that I was lying, saying there was no staff nurse with the name of Jan who worked on the ward, and denying that the phone was never answered. I did get to see my mother in the end, but only after a lot of arguing on my part. The whole experience left me feeling angry, frustrated and sad.

While I understand that hospitals are overstretched and that the primary role of staff must be to care for patients rather than to worry about relatives, I do expect that wards should be answering their emergency phone lines. I also expect to be treated with courtesy and respect by ward staff, even more so when I have exactly followed the instructions that I have been given by the nurse in charge. If ward staff fail to treat relatives--people who can fend for themselves--with courtesy and respect, then one seriously wonders about the attitude they adopt towards patients--the people for whom they are meant to be caring.

01 July, 2013

Lovely review for "Travels on a Greyhound Bus"!

I have just had a great review for my novel "Travels on a  Greyhound Bus" from Laura's Book Reviews.

She gives the book 7.5 out of 10 stars and says:

"This is a perfect summer read as it’s a quick and engaging read with warm and believable characters and I particularly enjoyed how the ending wasn’t neatly tied up, there was some ambiguity which made for a much more realistic read. I enjoyed it so much that I have already downloaded Beckie Henderson’s first novel A Matter of Degree."

You can read the full review here: http://bit.ly/11SEHT6

Thank you, Laura!

30 June, 2013

The Making of Harry Potter

It was my youngest daughter's birthday last week and she opted, as a birthday treat, not to have a party but to have a family visit to The Making of Harry Potter at the Warner Bros. studios near Watford.

So that's what we did. We'd never been before but we knew quite a few people who had and so we knew it was meant to be very good.

It was pouring with rain when we set off, but that wasn't a problem as the attraction is inside and although we had a picnic lunch, we were quite happy to eat it sitting in the car rather than using the outside picnic area on site.

The whole studio experience seemed well-organised and efficient right from the word go. We were greeted in our car by a member of staff who checked our email confirmation and we were then directed exactly where to park by three ushers placed at strategic points in the car park. When we exchanged our email confirmation for tickets, we were served by another member of staff who again was highly efficient and gave us all the information that we needed (where the loos were, when we should join the queue, how we might spend our spare time, etc.) without us having to ask. And all the other staff members who we encountered were knowledgeable, helpful and friendly. All very impressive.

The attraction itself was good too. It was really interesting--even for adults--to see the various sets from the films and to learn how some of the special effects were created. Things that I found of particular interest were the artwork--fantastic pictures drawn by truly talented concept artists; the level of detail in the sets--deliberately faded paintings, smoke-blackened walls and chipped stonework in the great hall; the beautiful costumes; and the very convincing look and feel of the Diagon Alley set.

It was a great family outing and I enjoyed the day much more than I had anticipated I would.

We finished the day off with a meal at Ask Italian in Watford before driving home. We've always enjoyed Ask in the past, but it proved rather disappointing this time. The place was clean, the staff were very friendly, the food was of high quality, but the problem was the portion sizes. I ordered pasta, which was truly tiny, and the pizzas had extremely thin bases--so much so that we were still hungry when we left. It's a shame because this didn't use to be the case with Ask, but this new development probably means that we won't eat there again--or at least it won't be our first choice.

27 June, 2013

"A Matter of Degree" FREE 4-7 July

Following the success of my last free promo, I'm going to do another one!

My novel "A Matter of Degree" will be FREE for four days -- Thursday 4 July until Sunday 7 July -- on Amazon.


This is a fun, light read which blends romance and mystery. It has good reviews and is rated 4.5 stars on Amazon.


You can download your free copy at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com.


Enjoy!

22 June, 2013

Starter for Ten

I've just finished reading "Starter for Ten" by David Nicholls. This is, I think, the third time that I've read this novel over the past few years--and it is exceptionally good, even on the third time of reading.

Somehow, Nicholls' descriptions of people and the way they behave, not to mention the way they feel, are just so apt. Many of us, I am sure, can relate to, or sympathise with, the inept protagonist, Brian, who as a nineteen-year-old university student is just so out of his depth--or at least that's how it feels to him. Other highly recognisable types are Brian's public school, rugger bugger housemates; the (again) public school blonde who is utterly beautiful, and knows it; and the angry Glaswegian with a heart of gold--the girl who we all know Brian should be with, really.

And, of course, the juxtaposition of university life with "The Challenge" is quite brilliant. The build up, the atmosphere, the Q&As as chapter openers. All great.

Before "Starter for Ten" I hadn't even heard of David Nicholls. And, in fact, it was the film of "Starter for Ten" that drew my attention to his work. I saw the trailer and immediately wanted to see the film. It was a nostalgia trip for me, really. I was at university in the 1980s and the music, The Challenge, the whole situation resonated with me. I loved it. Once I realised that the film was based on a book, I read the book. And I loved that too.

Of course, the novel for which Nicholls is really feted is "One Day". And that's a brilliant book too. Very sad, and a fantastic concept. Yet, somehow, I still prefer "Starter for Ten". Probably because it's set in a world that I am completely familiar with and fully understand. Although I spent significant amounts of time in my yoof watching the trashy late-night TV that features so heavily in "One Day" (whatever happened to Terry Christian...?), I was never a part of that world. Not in the showbiz sense, at least.

15 June, 2013

Becoming Mrs Kumar

I've just finished reading another interesting novel. This one was called Becoming Mrs Kumar and was written by Heather Saville Gupta.

I bought the book largely because I knew of the author from my school days in Devon in the 1980s. I also have an interest in India. So Becoming Mrs Kumar sounded like it would be a good read from my point of view.

The book is written in the chick lit genre but from rather an unusual perspective--bored with her predictable life in London, the main protaganist Julia takes up a job in Mumbai. Underlying her decision is the realisation that she probably isn't going to find 'Mr Right' in London and that perhaps she'll fare rather better in India.

Gupta writes about Julia's experiences in the first person, taking us through the sights, sounds and smells of Mumbai; the reality of working as an ex pat in India; and a couple of failed relationships before Julia does, indeed, meet 'Mr Right', falls in love with and marries him, and so remains in India.

Given the first-person narrative and given Gupta's own background (ex pat who lived and worked for several years in Mumbai before meeting and marrying her Indian husband), I'm guessing that a large part of Becoming Mrs Kumar is autobiographical, or at least draws very heavily on the author's own experiences.

What struck me most about this novel was the kind of lifestyle that Julia/(Gupta?) lives in India. This life appears to be one of non-stop partying, late night binge drinking at expensive restaurants and clubs, and full on hedonism. One wonders how on earth Julia is able to hold down her high-powered job in advertising on practically no sleep and with the remnants of the previous night's alcohol sloshing around her body--especially given that she is no longer an ultra-young and resilient twenty-something.

This book certainly conveys one aspect of Indian life very well--the glitzy world in which rich and successful Indians mingle with equally rich and successful ex pats. However, it really doesn't give the reader a feeling for other aspects of Indian life, which, I'm guessing, would be much more familiar to the average Indian citizen.

Still, I enjoyed this book and certainly wanted to keep on reading until the end. And it's hardly fair to criticise an author for writing about what they know, rather than about what they don't!


08 June, 2013

Tyringham Park

I recently read an interesting novel called Tyringham Park, written by Rosemary McLoughlin. As you will know if you read my blog regularly, I have an interest in history and particularly old buildings, spending quite a bit of my spare time visiting stately homes. Tyringham Park caught my attention because it gives an insight into the lives of the people who actually inhabited these magnificent homes.

The book is set largely in Ireland in the early years of the twentieth century. It follows the life of Charlotte Blackshaw, daughter of the incumbent lord, whose infant sister Victoria unaccountably went missing when Charlotte was just eight years old.

Despite the apparent luxury and comfort of Charlotte's life (no money worries, living in a vast and comfortable mansion, surrounded by toys, having the opportunity to ride and hunt), we learn that Charlotte's life is in fact anything but comfortable. Her father is never at home, preferring to remain in India on an army posting, rather than having anything to do with his family. Her mother, having no interest at all in her children, has abandoned them to a nanny who is utterly cruel and sadistic and regularly inflicts serious injury on her charges. Since the house is so large and the nursery confined to one of its enormous wings, no one is aware of the children's suffering. Charlotte's one joy is riding her horse, but even this is thwarted by her jealous and competitive mother.

As Charlotte grows older, her nanny is dismissed and her lot does eventually improve under the guidance of a kind and skilled private tutor. Yet as an adult, Charlotte remains scarred and haunted by her childhood, not least by the disappearance of her baby sister all those years ago.

Tyringham Park is certainly an epic novel. Its story involves a number of characters and skips between rural Ireland, the city of Dublin and new world Australia. What is particularly interesting about the story, though, is that behind such outward wealth and magnificence lie such twisted and cruel personalities. I suppose it's a historical confirmation of the old adage that no matter how much money you have, it won't necessarily buy you happiness.

01 June, 2013

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum

We had an interesting bank holiday Sunday last week visiting the 'Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum' exhibition at the British Museum. We'd bought out tickets well in advance and were looking forward to it.

The exhibition was busy. The reviews had been very good, so no surprise there. And, indeed, the exhibition was both good and informative, but not absolutely stunning, in my view. The presentation was fine, but not inspired. Rather than telling a story, as the title of the exhibition implies, this felt much more like a standard museum-type exhibition.

However, I did learn some things about Pompeii and Herculaneum that I didn't already know, despite having visited both sites a few years back. For example, I wasn't aware just how much of our knowledge of everyday Roman life is informed by the finds at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Nor was I aware that so many people still remain buried deep under the debris--only a small percentage of the populations have been uncovered.

And the artefacts on display were amazing. Things that particularly caught my eye were a baby's cradle (in tact), a loaf of bread which was perfectly preserved even down to the baker's mark stamped on the side, and a incredibly intricate and beautiful colander.

All of us (kids included) enjoyed the exhibition. Coincidentally, we also enjoyed the lunch that we ate at the British Museum--bought from a gourmet van in the front courtyard and eaten lolling on the grass in the sunshine. We later found out that the catering in the van was supplied by Benugo, who also supply the catering at our local Ashmolean Museum. Small world, it seems--or big company, more accurately!

27 May, 2013

First free promo a roaring success!

Wow! Well, I've done it. I've run my first ever free promo on Amazon!

My first novel, A Matter of Degree, was free yesterday for just the one day. I'd never done it before and I had no idea what to expect. Although I'd worked hard at advertising the promo, I was fully expecting that there would be very few downloads--especially having read several articles saying that the bottom had now fallen out of these promotional events.

But, for me at least, this wasn't the case at all. The number of downloads, both in the UK and the US, way, way exceeded my expectations. And my book entered the Kindle bestseller lists in the Contemporary Romance category on Amazon.co.uk, and both the Women's Fiction category and the Contemporary Fiction category on Amazon.com. It also flew up the Kindle free book charts on both sites.

I still can't quite believe it, but I am very, very happy with the results!

25 May, 2013

Physical decline and the forties

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post about being “of a certain age”, meaning that being in my forties, I now find that there are certain elements of culture that are only meaningful to my generation, and not to the generation behind mine. We are no longer the youngest adults on the block.

But this doesn’t only apply to things cultural. It also applies to things physical, unfortunately.
I’m pretty fit and healthy on the whole. I eat wholesome food, exercise several times a week, don’t smoke, drink little, etc., etc... And yet, when I turned forty a few years back, I found that things began to go downhill. My eyesight took a turn for the worse—suddenly I found that I needed specs to read the smaller print on things like menus, recipes and maps. (The optician who I consulted reassuringly told me that “at my age” this was just to be expected.) I made jokes about needing to wear my glasses on a string around my neck so that they were always available should I need them. But, slave to fashion that I am, I opted in reality for the ‘hipper’ alternative of keeping a spare pair in my handbag so that I could whip them out as and when required.

It’s not just eyes, though. There are other niggling gripes. Sore lower back, on and off. Poor circulation (in the case of another forty something who I know).  Odd aches and pains that come and go. I don’t remember these kinds of things back in my twenties... Neither do my friends who are of a similar age and who are experiencing a similar kind of decline.
I was struck by Penelope Lively’s comment in How it all Began that in old age pain is a "constant companion". So, the slippery slope begins at forty and apparently continues unremittingly into painful old age.

We forty somethings have a lot to look forward to, then!

20 May, 2013

"A Matter of Degree" FREE on Sunday 26 May!

My novel "A Matter of Degree" will be FREE for just one day -- Sunday 26 May -- on Amazon.

This is a fun, light read which blends romance and mystery. It has good reviews and is rated 4.5 stars on Amazon.

Why don't you beat those bank holiday blues and download your free copy at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com.

Happy reading!

18 May, 2013

The Company of Watermen and Lightermen—and an 80th birthday

I recently attended my father-in-law’s 80th birthday party—a lovely lunch with extended family and a handful of close family friends.

It was great fun. Not least because it gave me the opportunity to catch up with various family members who I don’t very often see and because, let’s face it, eighty years on this earth is something worth celebrating. But also the venue itself was something to write home about. The lunch took place at Watermen’s Hall in the City of London—the home of the Worshipful Company of Watermen and Lightermen. Just to emphasise the point, we were greeted on arrival by a bloke in full Company livery wielding a large oar!

The Hall itself is beautiful. It was built in 1780, having been designed by William Blackburn for the Company and holds the honour of being the only original Georgian Hall in the City of London. The room in which we ate was stunning—large, light and airy with a huge wooden dining table decked out in the Company’s silver and decorated with sprays of fresh flowers. My father-in-law was seated centre stage in the (very impressive) Master’s chair. Just right for such an important celebration.

In 1514 Henry VIII gave royal assent to the earliest Act of Parliament for regulating watermen, wherrymen and bargemen and, on the back of this Act, the Company initiated apprenticeships for individuals who wanted to learn the skills of the watermen. The lightermen (cargo men) joined the Company in 1700.

Thus, in 2014, the Company of Watermen and Lightermen will celebrate the 500th anniversary of this 1514 Act. And the Company is still actively involved with the River Thames and those individuals who work on it. Talk about longevity!

Watermen’s Hall epitomises many of the things that I love about London—the history; the continuing traditions; the architecture; and, best of all, those hidden gems which (if you’re lucky enough) you just happen to find out about during the course of a lifetime.

11 May, 2013

Opinionated workplaces

My workplace is full of academics, which means that everyone has an opinion about everything—and expresses it very loudly. Whether they have any knowledge of, or experience about, the subject on which they are holding forth is, apparently, irrelevant.

At times this can be amusing. At other times, irritating.

These are some of the things that have been discussed with alacrity over recent weeks:
  • common childhood diseases and their inoculations (none of the discussants has children)
  • what foods should and shouldn't be eaten by pregnant women (none of the discussants is female and none of the discussants has a partner who either is or has been pregnant)
  • the salary grade held by non-academic group members (none of the discussants is party to this information)
  • where the remaining Boston marathon bomber was hiding out and the brothers’ motives for the bombing (who knew?).

Quite a range of things on which to have an uninformed opinion, I’d say...

07 May, 2013

New novel "Travels on a Greyhound Bus" now available!

I'm really excited to announce that my new novel, Travels on a Greyhound Bus, is now available! This book takes a witty look at the nature of romantic relationships and how they change over time.

You can buy Travels on a Greyhound Bus for Kindle on amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.

For more information, take a look at the blurb:

People change. Relationships evolve. But sometimes by too much...

Hip students Araminta Stewart and Giles Richmond meet entirely by chance when travelling around the USA by Greyhound Bus. They hit it off. Some twenty years later, they are married with three children and have reached a crisis point in their relationship.

Araminta thought she knew what she wanted all those years ago. But now she’s got it, is she really happy? Or could there be more to life than this?

Told from Araminta’s point of view, Travels on a Greyhound Bus follows the couple as they navigate these two very different periods in their lives. While their early relationship flourishes, their later relationship appears to be disintegrating.

Faced with disappointment, frustration and the biggest challenge to their marriage yet, the question is: will Araminta and Giles’ relationship survive the journey of a lifetime?

05 May, 2013

High praise for Thompson Garden Services

We've just had a really great experience with a local garden design company, which I'm keen to shout about. The company is Thompson Garden Services (TGS), owned by Marc Thompson and based in Didcot, Oxfordshire.

TGS undertook a complete redesign and rebuild of our garden. This wasn’t a simple job—it involved clearing our existing plot, laying a patio and circular path, laying artificial grass, and custom building some play equipment (monkey bars and a swing bar) for our kids.

We were really impressed with Marc and his team’s work from start to finish. Right from the beginning, Marc engaged with our ideas, was able to understand what we wanted and, most importantly, translated those ideas into reality. On site, he worked to an extremely high standard, using only the highest quality materials and paying great attention to detail.

We are absolutely delighted with the garden that Marc has created for us, and can't recommend Thompson Garden Services highly enough!

04 May, 2013

Parents' obligations

A couple of things this week have got me thinking about parents’ obligations towards their children, and also about the way children treat their parents.

It is my youngest child’s class performance soon. Each child in the class needs to bring in a pair of dark leggings or jogging bottoms to wear both for the dress rehearsal and for the two evenings of actual performance. Despite the fact that we had been given plenty of notice by letter of this requirement, as well as the children having been given the message verbally to relay home, one or two of the children still failed to bring an appropriate piece of clothing in to school. As a result, the class teacher had to resort to asking the other children whether they had a pair of PE jogging bottoms that they wouldn't mind lending out. My daughter, being kind, proffered hers. That’s fine in some respects, but there are two problems from my point of view. The first is that on days when she does outdoor PE and it’s cold, my daughter now has to wear shorts, when normally she would wear her long jogging bottoms. And, even more importantly, my daughter needs her jogging bottoms in the week immediately following her performance for a school trip. So between us we have to make sure (a) that they are returned and then (b) washed in time for the trip—and we wouldn't have had to do either of these things had the parents in question bothered to provide their children with what was required.

It amazes me how often these kinds of things happen in school—how often parents don’t supply their children with what they need. I’m sure that this is sometimes a one off, simply down to forgetting. Parents are busy people, after all, as I know only too well. But what you tend to see is that, on the whole, the offenders are repeat offenders.

In contrast, and turning towards the issue of how children treat their parents—my oldest daughter threw a complete fit one morning this week because I asked her to change her school polo shirt. It was dirty and, as a responsible parent, I didn't feel that she should wear it into school. The problem was that, given she currently only has the one polo shirt (another one is on order, incidentally), her available options were a shirt and tie or a summer dress. But she, quite vehemently, did not want to wear either of the alternative options. The issue (although she would never admit it) is that the majority of her friends wear trousers and polos, and she wants to be like them. It’s teenage peer pressure kicking in.

So it can be very hard to win, it seems. While some parents fail to fulfil their parental obligations, others try very hard to do so, but this can be met with resistance by the children. No one ever said parenting was an easy job, I guess...

28 April, 2013

The ancient art of karate

My oldest daughter recently obtained her brown belt in karate. Quite an achievement, really. Just two more belts and then she’ll be aiming for the pièce de résistance—her black belt.

She started learning karate three years ago and has progressed quickly through the belts, despite only having lessons once a week (twice a week is just too expensive, given all our other commitments!). Thinking back to when she was starting out as a newbie white belt, it’s interesting to compare how she practises karate now with how she practised then. When she was a beginner, she (quite understandably!) moved less fluidly and her kicks and punches weren't terribly convincing. But now she’s really quite scary. She moves fast and gracefully, and her attacking is strong and sharp. She does a pretty impressive job of defending herself.

If you watch the lessons, though, it’s not entirely clear how students progress from beginner status through to advanced. That’s to say it’s not clear exactly how they are able to master the moves and improve. The classes are large (20+ students), cover a whole range of belts, and are led by (at most) two instructors. And my daughter does little practice outside her weekly class, so what she picks up and perfects, she does in class, not outside. But improve and move forward she certainly does, all the time. Perhaps it’s by a process of osmosis...

The gradings (the examination sessions which determine whether or not students are awarded their next belt) are interesting too. Students grade en masse (all students currently holding the same belt grade together), which means that the examiner has to keep an eye on roughly twelve students, all of whom are doing the same thing at the same time. They are examined on several things—their ability to perform a number of moves called at random by the examiner; how well they perform in their kata (the unique sequence of moves associated with a specific belt); and how well they defend and attack in a sparring session with a fellow student. It’s quite a lot for the examiner to take in and assess—and the grading always ends with him frantically scribbling notes!

But the system appears to work. Those students who you know to be good generally pass the grading, and those who you know to be less good often don’t pass, or are awarded a 'temporary' grade, meaning they’re not quite up to the required standard.

My daughter really enjoys karate and she seems to get a lot out of it—fitness, agility, discipline, confidence, a sense of achievement... Ultimately (once she’s a black belt), she hopes to be able to earn a bit of pin money from helping out with teaching. So, I’m very glad she decided to take this ancient art up. It’s been worth it.

20 April, 2013

Career and parenthood: is part-time working the answer?

Work and parenthood, as we all know, can be hard to combine successfully. However, talking to friends and from my own experience, there is a very specific issue surrounding part-time working and parenting.

I, and several of the people I know, work part time. In this way we are able to keep our careers going (or at least keep one foot in the world of work) while being around for our kids. This situation sounds ideal--not only are we still working, but we can also be there to deliver and pick up from school and, with any luck, have enough flexibility that we can be around for those occasional events that demand parental attention such as sports day and parent meetings at the end of the school day.

However, this kind of part-time working does present problems in itself. For a start, by the time you've taken into account travelling to and from work (if you don't live on your work's doorstep), you are looking at working pretty part time -- probably fifty or sixty per cent of full-time hours at most. And secondly, these kinds of jobs are few and far between. Almost all 'decent' jobs (reasonably high level and fairly well paid) are full time. The result tends to be that you get highly-qualified, highly-experienced individuals working in part-time roles that are well below their capability levels. This situation may be alright for a while, but in the end it can lead to employee frustration and poor job satisfaction.

There is therefore also an issue surrounding how long it makes sense to work part time for, before going full time again and taking your career forward. My oldest child will go to secondary school in September, but my youngest won't move to secondary for another two years after that. And even when they're both there, will I really want them home alone for significant periods of time before my husband and I get home from work? And what about school holidays...?

I'm very grateful to have the opportunity to work part time at present, but it certainly isn't a panacea. It introduces a whole new set of issues--especially for the parent who works part time. Combining work and parenthood just is tough, it seems, particularly if you are aiming for some measure of fulfillment and happiness for the whole family.

13 April, 2013

Friday I'm in love...and other ruminations

I was walking to work on Friday and, as usual, I took a shortcut through the local shopping centre. They often have music playing over the PA system there and this morning it was "Friday I’m in Love" by the Cure. 

Highly appropriate in day-of-the-week terms, at least. But it made me smile because when I was a teenager, back in the 1980s, the Cure was one of my favourite bands. ("Dressed up to the eyes/It's a wonderful surprise/To see your shoes and your spirits rise..." Not an easy line to beat, I reckon.) And you don’t hear the Cure's music that often these days--certainly not in a shopping centre.

All of this got me thinking about age and about context. How many people, I wondered, would recognise this Cure song, or indeed any Cure song? Certainly not the majority of today’s youth. They’re just too--well--young. And the Cure was, of course, an indie band (yep, I was alternative back then), so it’s in fact rather ironic to hear their music playing somewhere as mundane and mainstream as a shopping centre.

On Radio 4’s Today programme the other day, one of the presenters referred to “those of us of a certain age” who would remember only too well the '80s image of Nick Cayman stripping off in a launderette to the tune of “I heard it through the Grapevine”. For people not of that age, he added, YouTube could no doubt assist.

That placed me, time wise. Same with my Cure experience on Friday. Apparently I've now reached  “a certain age”. In the past I've always interpreted that expression as referring to people who can no longer be described as young. And that group now includes me, it seems...

Scary!

06 April, 2013

The National Trust and Cadbury: an utterly commercial partnership

Last weekend my family and I visited one of our local National Trust haunts—Basildon Park—and our kids did the Easter trail there. These NT Easter trails are something that we’ve only recently started doing (just last year, I think), even though our kids have been around for over ten years now and even though we are regular NT visitors. I’m not sure why it’s taken us so long, really.

However, having started doing the trails, I am always rather stuck by their incongruity. They are an utterly commercial exercise. Sponsored by Cadbury, the staff greet you in large, attention-attracting tents, emblazoned with the word ‘Cadbury’ and the company’s logo. You pay a couple of pounds per child to enter and the aim (from your point of view) is to find all the clues that are hidden in the grounds of the house. Your prize, once you have completed the trail, is, naturally, a Cadbury’s egg.

The aim from Cadbury’s point of view is, presumably, some very well placed advertising. Strike a deal with an organisation that has sites countrywide which are visited by lots of people with kids over the Easter weekend and, hey presto!, you’re in the sights of a shed load of young potential customers, most of whom just LOVE chocolate.

Neat idea.

But the incongruity for me lies in the difference between the NT of today and the NT that I knew and loved as a child growing up in the seventies. I touched on this a while ago in a blog post that I wrote about NT tea rooms. Back when I was a kid, the NT was a dusty, old fashioned organisation that got very few visitors through the doors of its houses, even on bank holiday weekends. No point in Cadbury teaming up with the Trust in those days. But now, the NT’s sites are teaming with visitors, so much so that at peak times you have to queue up for entry and you don’t stand a chance of getting a table in the tea room—unless you happen to have extremely sharp elbows!

The National Trust has become an utterly commercial, utterly twenty-first century money-making machine. And its collaboration with Cadbury simply epitomises this.

When we were leaving Basildon Park at around 3pm, I heard the Cadbury staff turning one hopeful Easter trailer away. “We’re at capacity for this weekend,” they said. In other words, they’d run out of eggs. Much the same might be said of the Trust, I thought, with a rueful smile.

02 April, 2013

More on motorway signs

Some time ago, I wrote a blog post about the odd messages that you sometimes see displayed on the overhead signs when travelling along the motorway.

Yesterday, travelling home along the M4, we spotted another such message. It read: "Take extra care while driving." As with the previous messages, this sentiment is laudable. But does reading such a sign really have any impact on anyone's driving? Surely, if you're a careful driver, you're a careful driver. And for those people who are not, well, I doubt whether such a reminder is likely to help much.

Of course,  it's good to see these overhead signs being used and displaying some kind of content. But still I can't help feeling that somewhere there's a Highways Agency employee who, in the absence of any earth shattering announcements that absolutely need displaying, is scrabbling to find some (any?) kind of public service information to brighten up our otherwise tedious motorway journeys...

30 March, 2013

Lunch at an Oxford college

I had an interesting experience the other day--a friend invited me as her guest to lunch at an Oxford college. It proved quite an eye opener.

What very soon became apparent was that tradition is certainly not dead at Oxford (just in case you were in any doubt!). As a part-time college lecturer my friend is permitted three free lunches per week in college, and she can bring one guest with her per lunch.

She (and others) may well be permitted free lunches, but hierarchy abounds in the system. First off, there are two dining halls. The one my friend attends is the ‘senior’ dining hall, which seats all staff who hold sufficiently senior positions within the college. Below this is the ‘other’ dining hall, which seats students and those members of staff who are not sufficiently senior to merit admittance to the ‘senior’ dining hall. (When I say ‘below’, I mean that literally as well as metaphorically--diners entering the upstairs dining hall are able to gaze down on the plebs below via an elevated viewing platform.)

There is also a form of hierarchy at work within the ‘senior’ dining hall. This centres on the (silver!) napkin rings, which are numbered. The more senior you are within college, the lower the number of your napkin ring. As a part-time, fixed-term college lecturer, my friend was languishing somewhere in the seventies, followed only by hourly paid tutors and junior research fellows. As a guest, I had no ring, but I did have a napkin. Thick white linen, no less!

The lunch itself is pretty full on—a hot main course with vegetarian option (or you can have a salad if you prefer), followed by a hot pudding (or fruit or cheese and biscuits, if healthy eating is your thing). There’s a choice of still or sparkling mineral water and tea/coffee (cappuccinos and lattes available too!) to conclude. As soon as you've finished, your dishes are whisked away by one of the hovering, dark-suited waiters.

After lunch my friend gave me a tour of the college. I saw the beautiful drawing rooms in which people relax with a cup of coffee and the paper, the Fellows' Garden (students are admitted, but must keep noise levels to a minimum), the rolling mound of a recently-discovered underground wine cellar in the grounds of the oldest part of college...

It was more like a stately home or a top notch hotel than an educational establishment. It was a treat to be a guest, but I'm not sure that I would have liked to be a student there. My alma mater, the University of Edinburgh, despite its ancient roots was fully integrated into modern life, even in the 1980s, when I was there. And I rather liked that.