23 December, 2015

'Life after Life' and second hand books

I recently finished reading 'Life after Life' by Kate Atkinson, which I really enjoyed and highly recommend. It centres on a character called Ursula, who is born in England in 1910. The key premise is really that there are different courses that our lives might take, dependent on what happens at particular points in time. This might sound like a truism, but in Ursula's case, we see her life pan out in multiple ways, multiple times. In one version of her life, she dies at birth, the umbilical cord strangling her with the midwife stuck in snow and so unable to attend. In another, she survives infancy, only to die falling from a window in pursuit of a doll that her brother has thrown out. In another she she meets and marries an abusive man, who eventually kills her. In yet another she doesn't meet this man, but works as an air raid warden during the second world war and is killed by a falling bomb. And so on.

The story is intricate, remarkably clever and makes you think. What happens in one's life really is, to a large extent, a matter of fate, no matter how much control we may feel we have over events. In addition, the story paints a vivid and fascinating picture of what it was like to live through the second world war.

'Life after Life' was published in 2013, so I have come to read it a bit late. But this is because I picked the book up second hand in Oxfam. I have recently discovered the joy of books on sale in charity shops. I love reading and I like to own my own copies, but with most books priced at around £8 now, this can sometimes be hard to justify. I was in Oxfam buying Christmas wrapping paper the other day and by chance went across to browse the books. I came away with three for less that £6, all of which were good reads. So, I'm now a second hand book convert!

21 December, 2015

Agatha Christie overload

We have been doing a lot of Agatha Christie recently.

We suddenly realised that we have a whole load of Agatha Christie TV adaptations recorded (over 30 in total!) which we haven't yet watched, so we have started ploughing through those. We watched both 'A Pocketful of Rye' and 'Murder is Easy' this weekend.

And then on Saturday we went to see 'The Mousetrap' at the St. Martin's Theatre. My husband and I saw this production a couple of years ago (albeit with a different cast) but the grandparents had been looking for a family show to take us and the children to and thought that this would be a good one. And it was -- rather overacted, but all good fun. A clever twist at the end, a beautiful set and everyone enjoyed themselves. What more could you want?

We're planning to watch the new TV adaptation of 'And Then There Were None' over the Christmas period. I gather that this may be rather different -- an altogether scarier adaptation than usual.

Perhaps I'll start re-reading all the books, as well. I read most of them as a teenager, but haven't picked one up in the last thirty years or so. Not terribly sophisticated, but highly entertaining -- and even more widely read than the Bible, I hear!

29 November, 2015

Christmas Extravaganza -- a bit of a damp squib

Late yesterday afternoon, we went out en famille to see the Abingdon Christmas Extravaganza -- specifically, the fire show followed by the Christmas light switch on and fireworks.

We were particularly looking forward to the fire show.This was a new attraction last year and had been brilliant -- a very skilled guy who performed all sorts of acrobatics and antics with batons of fire.

We arrived early and managed to find a reasonable place standing up behind the few rows of benches that were set out for those who preferred to be seated. However, once the performance started, we found that we couldn't see a thing. People had pushed in front of us and stood blocking our view, while those people at the front who had benches, and so should have been sitting down, chose to stand up, thereby blocking everyone's view, In a desperate attempt to see something, we and the kids walked round to a point behind the stage and stood on the edge of the pavement so that we could peer through the gaps in the backdrop and at least get vague glimpses of fire. However, even here, an adult pushed in front of my oldest daughter, entirely blocking her view.

At this point, feeling very disappointed, we gave up and went in search of a warming hot chocolate from one of the nearby cafes, but unfortunately, the queues were so long there, that we simply decided to go home. We caught a glimpse of the fireworks on the way (which were good), but we didn't see the actual light switch on.

It's funny how sometimes the things that you are most looking forward to turn out to be the most disappointing, while something totally unexpected can be amazing. It's also sad that people can be so selfish. If people had behaved a little bit better, it would have been possible for everyone to have a good time and enjoy the fire show. As it was, those of us who weren't prepared to push and think only of ourselves lost out.

08 November, 2015


We had a great day out in Greenwich a couple of weeks ago. I worked out that this was one of the few areas of London that I hadn't visited and so we decided to make a day of it.

We travelled there by the Docklands Light Railway, and this in itself was quite an experience. The Docklands area is very dense and we found ourselves travelling along very close to many skyscrapers (largely owned by financial companies), interspersed with small modern housing developments and lots of restaurants and eateries. This looked like a good place for a young professional to live -- if you could afford to buy a property here!

We started off by visiting the Old Naval College. This was beautiful -- both the Painted Hall and the chapel are open to the public and they are covered in stunning eighteenth century frescoes. Furthermore, this is free. So well worth a visit. There was also some filming going on outside the collage when we visited, which the kids found fascinating.

We went on to the maritime museum -- again free and full of interesting exhibits to do with the ocean. We particularly enjoyed the environmental exhibition, the exhibit showing artefacts of sea travel throughout the ages, and the hugely ornate Prince Frederick's Barge (built in 1732 and used for royal occasions).

Last but not least, food. We ate lunch and tea at the Waterstones Cafe in Greenwich. This was a pleasant place -- not as busy as the other local cafes and with very friendly and welcoming staff. We ate supper at Cantina Laredo on Upper Saint Martin's Lane. This serves delicious Mexican food and is one of our favourite restaurants in town.

We didn't manage to visit everything that there is to see in Greenwich, so we plan to go back at some point to see the observatory, the Queen's House and to have a wander in the royal park.

30 October, 2015

Pumpkin hunt

Today, my daughters and I followed our usual half-term tradition of doing the pumpkin hunt in the beautiful Waterperry Gardens, just outside Oxford.

At 11 and 13, I thought the kids might consider themselves too old for this kind of thing, but no. A few weeks ago, my youngest asked if we would be doing the hunt this year (she thought her sister may not want to, being a teenager now), but my oldest confirmed that she would be happy to do it too. And so we did.

We worked out that we have now done the Waterperry pumpkin hunt for nine years in a row, since the kids were tiny tots. The only difference is that we are now super-speedy at finding the pumpkins. It took us just 20 minutes today!

As usual, we wound up with a treat in the cafe.

On the way out, we noticed that Waterperry is running a reindeer hunt in the gardens during the Christmas holidays. Guess what? My youngest declared that she wanted to do that too! Talk about tradition!

24 October, 2015

How people's live can change

It sometimes amazes me how people's lives can change over time; how someone's life can begin on one trajectory and end up on quite another.

For example, many years ago, when I lived up in Scotland, I had a very close friend. We were studying for our PhDs together and we saw each other most days. She was even a bridesmaid at my wedding.

My friend was (obviously) very bright and she was talented in other ways, too -- she was outgoing, sociable, and a great comedienne and mimic. I have no doubt that she would have excelled at stand up, had she tried it. She was the heart and soul of any party and she was also a bit of wild child -- an extremely heavy drinker and a bit of a flirt. She was great fun to be around. And she seemed destined for a successful career, gaining a temporary lectureship at a time when jobs in academia in the humanities were almost impossible to come by.

Yet, not long after I received my PhD and moved down south, things seemed to take a turn for the worse for my friend. She gave up her job. She was in a car crash. And the next thing I heard, she had been sectioned.

Our lives took quite different directions and we gradually drifted apart. We exchanged Christmas cards for a while, but eventually lost touch completely.

The other day, in an idle moment, I did a Web search for my old friend and was shocked to find that she had been the subject of a missing person search. She had disappeared and police had appealed for witnesses, saying that they were becoming increasingly concerned for her safety, as they considered her to be "vulnerable". To my relief, she had been found safe and well a few days later.

But all of this made me think how transient success can be. Someone can apparently be headed in one direction, and then something can just change, which makes their life veer off in another direction altogether. My friend should have been a successful academic (that's where things seemed to be going), and yet, ultimately, her life has turned out quite differently.

17 October, 2015

A perilous Sunday afternoon

We had a rather perilous Sunday afternoon out last week.

We decided to combine something for us and something for the kids. The something for us was a walk in the beautiful Shotover Country Park, which comprises a lovely open plain plus numerous paths that meander through beech woods. The something for the kids was a visit to the cinema to see 'Pan', a film that they were keen to watch.

The walk turned perilous when we were almost run over by an escaped Shetland pony! We were alerted to its presence by the sound of galloping hooves behind us and turned round to see the pony bearing down on us, followed closely by a horse ridden by a woman who was clearly in a state of panic. We hurried to the side of the path out of the way, while the woman shouted at us to grab the pony. We didn't, of course. What idiot would try to get hold of a pony that was galloping along full tilt?!

We never did find out what had happened. The pony and horse disappeared out of sight altogether, and we didn't see them come back again. I only hope things ended well and that no one -- passer-by, horse, rider -- was injured in the fray.

'Pan', by contrast, was quite uneventful. A perfectly pleasant but totally non-engaging (for adults anyway) film. Cara Delevigne had a cameo appearance, which made my oldest daughter very happy. (You see, I wouldn't even know who Cara Delevingne was, were it not for my kids!)

10 October, 2015

How the work environment affects employees

I find it fascinating that the environment in which people work can have such an effect on how those people present themselves, both in terms of their style of communication and (more surprisingly) their physical appearance.

For example, I have a friend who used to work in a department which had little team spirit, where the leadership was poor, and where people were by and large not very friendly or helpful. Her reaction to this situation was to dress severely, to scrape her hair back in a tight ponytail, and to adopt an abrasive attitude. All of this actually reflected the fact that she felt unhappy and insecure in her work environment.

My friend then moved to a new department where the atmosphere was quite different. People were friendly and happy, the team was tight-knit and the leadership was good -- and she changed accordingly. She started to wear her hair down, she was smiling and more relaxed, and she adopted a much more approachable persona. She was working in a better place and her behaviour and appearance reflected that.

Employers often seem oblivious to the effect that the company atmosphere has on employees and their behaviour, but this effect is profound. Cultivating a good company spirit results in happier and, I'll wager, more productive employees.

03 October, 2015


Last weekend, my family and I went on a walk in the countryside close to us. Unusually, this was at the kids' request and they had been waiting to do this walk for a whole year!

The reason...conkers!

To be more specific: we did the same walk a year ago, and the walk passes along a lane lined by horse chestnut trees. The lane was littered with conkers and the kids, delighted, filled their pockets to bulging with the nuts. We took them home and distributed them in bowls around the house. They actually make a very attractive addition to the household!

The kids enjoyed gathering the conkers so much that they asked if we could do the same thing the following year. I duly noted the date in my diary and that's what we did at the weekend.

Generally the kids don't much enjoy walking in the countryside--they don't see the point--so it was great to have them actually asking to go out on a walk for once.

And we enjoyed the walk (and the conkers!) just as much this year as last.

25 September, 2015

421 words for snow

I read a very interesting article the other day about  the compilation of the first Historical Thesaurus of Scots. Academics putting together the tome have discovered that there are 421 Scottish words for snow, in all its multiplicity of forms. For example, 'blin-drift' means drifting snow, while 'flindrikin' means a slight snow shower. This puts the Inuit total of only 50 worlds for snow well and truly in the shade.

In addition to weather, the thesaurus will cover sport. It turns out that there are 369 different Scottish words associated with the playing of marbles, a game that has been extremely popular with Scottish children for generations.

Despite having lived in Scotland for a number of years, I am not familiar with any of the words connected with snow or marbles that were quoted in the article. I guess this is because I am not a native Scot and because neither snow nor marbles featured high on my agenda during my time living in the country.

But this got me thinking about how easy it would be to invent words that don't exist and, if enough people were prepared to take part in the mass deception, convince others (non-natives) that these words were legitimate and had been around forever. If you did that, I imagine that people might actually start using those made-up words and, voilĂ , they would enter the language for real.

And that is exactly how vocabulary does--or can--develop. Not the mass deception bit, of course, but someone starting to use a new word or an old word in a new way, others following suit and, before you know it, that word becoming ubiquitous.

An interesting article, as I said...

12 September, 2015

Big school beckons

I can't quite believe it -- my youngest child started secondary school this week. Yet it seems like only yesterday that she was a tiny tot starting primary school.

And my oldest child is already starting on GCSE work!

Where does the time go?

04 September, 2015

Pride and Prejudice

We went to see "Pride and Prejudice" by the Pantaloons last weekend. This was an open air theatre production in the grounds of Waddesdon Manor, and it was fabulous!

The Pantaloons is a small touring theatre company which puts on a variety of plays during the course of the year. They aim to "recapture an aspect of Shakespeare's drama which the modern naturalistic theatre has lost: the riotous energy of the clown". What this means in practice is that they bring a huge amount of fun and invention to their productions. The actors clearly love their jobs and enjoy working together.They specialise in really funny and clever ad libbing, and they constantly interact with their audience.

During the performance that we saw, the actors managed to weave into the script comments about a hot air balloon that just happened to be floating past, and about the fact that the after-dark illumination of Waddesdon Manor made it look a bit like Batman's layer! They also wandered through the audience (who were picnicking on the grass), stealing bits of food and glasses of wine -- again, all at pertinent points in the plot.

We enjoyed the show so much, that we are about to book tickets for the Pantaloons' autumn production of Macbeth. I'll be very interested to see how they make that play amusing -- but I'm absolutely sure they'll manage it with great finesse!

15 August, 2015

The take away coffee culture

On my walk into work the other day I felt thirsty, and so I popped into a cafe to pick up a bottle of water to take into the office with me.

Something struck me as I emerged -- 95 per cent of the people around me, who were making their way to work just like me, were clutching take away cups of coffee. And almost everyone in the cafe had been purchasing take away coffee, with the exception of one guy who was buying a bottle of water, like me.

There is much talk at the moment of Britain's economy being kept afloat by the (relatively new) coffee shop culture, but I've never thought much about this before now. However, it's incredible that so many people seem to purchase expensive coffee to start off their working days. I wonder what's happened to rolling into the office and making a cup of instant while waiting for your computer to start up?

Not that I can talk, of course. I've never been much of a fan of office kitchens and shared milk that is about to go off!

01 August, 2015

Summer holidays!

Ah, the joy of the summer holidays! I have become a taxi service for my eldest, it seems...

For example, the other day I found myself driving around the countryside picking up a whole gaggle of teenagers before delivering them for an afternoon out in a neighbouring town. One of the other mothers was on pick up duty a few hours later.

My eldest was doing directions for me and, to give her her due, she was pretty good. But I noticed that the quality of the directions decreased as each new friend got into the car...

The conversation amongst the young was riveting. Lots about texting. Lots about fashion. Lots of gossip. All discussed at high volume.

When we reached the other end, excitement levels were so high that everyone forgot to say goodbye to me.

Do you remember being a teenager?!

25 July, 2015

Le Creuset

We had an interesting mealtime incident the other day. We were celebrating a family birthday with a fondue at home. At the end of the meal, one of the children present at the table looked at the fondue pot and commented, 'That's Le Creuset, isn't it?'

It was.

It struck me as amusing somehow that this young person was familiar with Le Creuset tableware. I mean, how middle class is that?!

18 July, 2015

The end of term -- and the end of primary school

We finally reached the end of term on Friday. Not only was it the end of term, but it was also the end of primary school for my youngest. So, no more primary school, ever. Hurrah!

However, it's been a hectic run up to the end of primary school. Over the past two weeks, we have had the following: the school disco, sports day, the leavers' performance (two nights), Fun on the Field (a social event that takes place on the school field on a Saturday evening and involves brining a picnic supper and listening to local bands playing), the leavers' picnic, the leavers' service, and the leavers' party (an evening event at the local open air pool, requiring a parent to be present with each child).

I think we're going to need the six weeks' break to recover from the welter of primary school leaving events... Here we come, secondary school -- refreshed, I hope!

11 July, 2015

Roll up for the circus!

Around this time last year, we went to Giffords Circus for my daughter's birthday. That was our first time at Giffords and we loved it. I wrote a blog post about it at the time.

We now seem to have become regulars, and we went to Giffords Circus again last weekend, this time to celebrate my husband's birthday. We found the show to be as good as last year, if not better. Many of the acts had changed and there were lots of new stunts to thrill and amaze. We particularly enjoyed the acrobatic troupe from Ethiopia, and the "girl with the golden rings". Clown Tweedy remains a constant and he really is fabulous, bringing something quite unique to the role of circus clown, a far cry from the humdrum, tired jokes that usually go with the turf.

After thoroughly enjoying ourselves at the circus, we wandered across the park to the Cotswold Lodge Hotel for a cream tea in the sunshine on their terrace. Lovely!

04 July, 2015

Partners for life

I heard two women chatting in a cafe the other day. They were talking about a friend who was changing her hours at work. One option for the friend was to work on Friday mornings, but not Friday afternoons. She declined this option, however, because her husband didn't work on Friday afternoons and she "didn't want to spend any time with him".

Similarly, I remember years ago, when I was doing a holiday job at the Royal Mail sorting office, getting talking to a female co-worker who worked full time at the sorting office. She worked nights. Her husband worked there too, but he worked days. She commented that they were like ships passing in the night, but that this situation suited her perfectly as she didn't want to spend time with her husband.

I wonder how people end up in such sad, unsociable relationships, especially in this day and age when it is usual to test the waters by living together first. I am lucky enough to have a husband who I actively enjoy spending time with -- and that seems to me how things, ideally, should be. After all, your spouse is meant to be your partner for life and someone who you don't talk to and don't want to spend time with isn't much of a partner. I know that my life would be much less rich in the absence of the relationship that I have with my husband.

26 June, 2015

HMRC and telephone targets

I listened with interest to the article on the news this morning about HMRC failing to answer more than a quarter of phone calls last year. I have to do the dreaded self-assessment tax return each year and so have, on a number of occasions, called up HMRC. Luckily, I have always managed to get through quickly and have had my questions answered -- although I haven't generally been ringing at peak times, e.g. just before the deadline for self-assessment.

What interested me most in the article, though, is that HMRC has set itself a target to answer 80 per cent of calls in the future. This just struck me as bizarre. Surely the target should be to answer 100 per cent of calls!

Part of my day job involves responding to (often very complex) queries that come in relating to academic research and ethics. Admittedly, this is on a tiny scale compared to the queries that HMRC receives. However, we manage these queries with two part-time, overworked members of staff and we answer (note: do answer, not aim to answer) one hundred per cent of those queries. I can't imagine how our employer would react if we said we were setting ourselves the target of replying to 80 per cent of queries in the future!

But back to HMRC. What are the remaining 20 per cent of people whose calls aren't answered meant to do? Not pay their tax bills? I can't quite see that one flying with HMRC...

06 June, 2015

The changing meaning of the verb 'to revert'

I do a lot of work for the publishing industry. My husband works in the IT industry. Between us, we have plenty of experience working with Indian colleagues. And the one thing that we both really notice is the phenomenon of Indian English,

There are certain phrases that are used regularly in Indian English but are not correct, at least traditionally, in British English. One of our favourites is the word 'revert'. In Indian English the phrase: 'Please revert to me' is commonplace. This is used to mean 'please refer to me', as in 'if you have any questions, please refer to me'. Or, in Indian English, 'if you have any questions, please revert to me'. Although we understand perfectly well what is meant by the phrase in Indian English, it is a non-starter in British English. In British English, 'please revert to me' would mean 'please turn back into me' -- which makes no sense at all!

What's interesting, though, is that this phrase now appears to be entering British English and, increasingly, is being used between speakers of British English. Only the other day, I received an email from a journalist saying '...I will revert to you or to Kate, depending on your instructions'.

The phrase 'to revert' in the sense of 'to refer' already appears in the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary, albeit under the category of Indian English. My guess is that it won't be long before it appears in other more pedestrian dictionaries of British English as well.

29 May, 2015

Springtime sandal shopping

It's spring which means...time to shop for sandals for the kids again.

I have never been a great fan of shoe shopping for myself -- a legacy of having large feet and it being impossible to find shoes in my size when I was young. I have memories of being dragged from shop to shop with assistants making increasingly cutting remarks about the size of my feet. That wouldn't happen these days, of course -- people actually seem to care about kids and their feelings now! But not so back in the 70s.

My kids have quite large feet too, but at least shops have now tumbled to the fact that not all girls possess petite tootsies and it is possible to purchase larger sizes. However, my oldest is now at the age where Clarks is a no-no and Schuh is much more the thing, whereas my youngest still prefers the offering from Clarks, so we now have to visit twice as many shops. Schuh is also expensive, which rather limits the choices for my oldest, as I (perhaps unreasonably?) baulk at paying over £40 for a pair of kids' sandals.

So, we headed into our local town a couple of days ago and visited the requisite shops. My oldest identified some sandals that she liked, but which were expensive. My youngest was measured up in Clarks, but when the assistant returned from the stock room she declared that they had no sandals whatsoever in my daughter's size. So, we came home empty handed on both fronts.

The problem is that the kids still need their sandals. So, I started up my laptop and managed to find the expensive sandals for sale significantly cheaper with a reputable online supplier. Hurrah! And we managed to find some sandals that my youngest liked the look of in the Clarks online shop. These are now on order for delivery to our local store.

Let's just hope they fit when they arrive, otherwise it'll be back to the drawing board again!

23 May, 2015

The Cotswold town of Burford

We had a fabulous family day out in the Cotswold town of Burford today. We used to visit Burford a lot when we first moved to Oxfordshire, but haven't visited for a long time and, as far as I remember, we haven't taken the kids there. So, we packed up a picnic and decided to give it a go.

We started off by doing a four mile walk in the countryside surrounding Burford. The Cotswolds landscape is truly gorgeous and we climbed lots of stiles (the kids love stiles), saw some foals (the kids love foals) and took in the tiny church in the village of Widford (very peaceful with beautiful wall paintings). We had our picnic in a lush valley bottom, halfway round the walk -- the perfect picnic spot.

After our walk, we got 'proper' ice creams in Burford (waffle cones and non-mass produced ice cream) and had a look round the numerous shops in the town. We particularly liked the Cotswold Cheese Company (lots of lovely cheeses, olives and savoury biscuits, with a cafe at the back where you could enjoy tasting platters and a glass of wine) and Burford Woodcraft (we were keen to show this shop to the kids as we bought our current coffee table there when we first moved down to Oxford, almost twenty years ago now).

On the way back to the car, we popped into Burford's church, which is very large with spectacular stained glass (fitting for a former wealthy wool town), and bought a couple of plants for our garden from a 'nursery' (actually an extensive Cotswold stone house which sells all sorts of cottage garden plants to passing tourists).

I arrived home feeling relaxed and restored. An excellent outcome for a bank holiday Saturday!

16 May, 2015

Wearables and the coffee shop experience

I heard an interesting article last week on Radio 4's Today programme about so-called 'wearables' -- wearable technology such as smart watches. This article covered the uses to which such wearable devices can be put -- transferring our personal data to other devices in order to make our lives easier, for instance. The example given, which really made my ears prick up, was that your smart watch might be used to transfer your personal beverage preferences to the computer at your local coffee shop, with the result that your coffee would be ready and waiting for you on your arrival. No need to queue. No need to take time to decide whether or not you'd like to try the coffee of the week.  No need whatsoever to speak to another human being. Simply grab and go -- in the most literal sense.

The general gist of the Today programme discussion covered the ethics and data protection aspects of such practice -- is it safe or desirable for people's personal data to be transmitted in this way? Research showed that opinion on this issue is divided, with, perhaps predictably, the very young (those already most comfortable with mobile devices, social media, etc.) voicing the least concern.

But my interest lay in the social -- or lack of social -- aspects of such practice in relation to the coffee shop experience. I actively enjoy going into a coffee shop, standing in a queue, observing the people around me, interacting with the barista to order my coffee (pass the time of day, have a joke...). I can't imagine anything worse than grabbing my coffee and leaving without any social interaction whatsoever.

Am I unusual in this, I wonder? Or am I one of many set-in-their-ways, middle-aged people who feel just the same? (And, as a largely irrelevant aside, who takes a word like 'wearables' seriously anyway?!)

02 May, 2015

The Hard Problem

Last weekend, I had a wonderful treat. My husband and I went to see Tom Stoppard's new play, 'The Hard Problem', at the National Theatre on London's South Bank.

Tom Stoppard is my all-time favourite playwright, simply because his plays are so intelligent and make you think in a way that no other plays do. So I was very excited when I found out that Stoppard had written a new play, and I was lucky enough to be given tickets for my birthday.

'The Hard Problem' didn't disappoint. Essentially, the play is about the problem of consciousness--how, given the materialist nature of science, it is possible to adequately explain the phenomenon of consciousness in purely scientific (i.e. physical) terms (via neurobiology, for example). The vast majority of scientists, psychologists and philosophers today believe that the mind (or consciousness) in some way reduces to brain activity, hence can be explained in physical or scientific terms. However, they all agree that no-one to date has come close to doing so -- simply because, they argue, the brain (and mind) is simply too complex for us to understand at this stage. Hence, the problem of consciousness is the Hard Problem for scientists.

Stoppard's play explores the flip side of the coin -- that perhaps the mind or consciousness cannot be reduced to physical brain activity. The key protagonist of this argument within the play is Hilary, a psychologist who feels extreme sorrow and guilt for having given her daughter up for adoption and who prays to God for forgiveness. These concepts -- sorrow, guilt, forgiveness and God -- are  not, she believes, rooted in the physical. Rather, they are something more than physical.

As is typical with Stoppard, the play is fast moving and covers a variety of topics. Areas that loom large are the nature of altruism, the behaviour of financial markets, whether or not machines can think, and what any of this has to do with how people behave in the real world (outside academia) day to day.

I loved this play. My academic background is in philosophy, which means that I was familiar with most of the concepts discussed. However, that kind of knowledge isn't necessary to enjoy the play -- I know of several non-specialists who loved it. All you need is an ability to listen carefully and to think outside the box.

My husband and I came out of the theatre discussing the issues raised in the play and we are still discussing them. Wonderful!

19 April, 2015

First names and last names

Even in the informal, everyone-is-equal world of today, first names and last names are still used as indicators of status. This struck me most recently when flying home from Venice. The captain did the usual welcome announcement once we’d all boarded the plane. He referred to himself and his co-pilot by first name and surname, yet introduced the cabin crew by first name only. Why? I assume because pilots are considered more senior in rank, hence ‘better’ than cabin crew. But in fact these two professions are just different – it doesn't make any sense to compare seniority across the two.

The same applies to the health professions. Doctors are referred to by surname and nurses by first name. In the past, of course, nurses were also referred to by surname – back when everyone was known by their title and surname in the workplace. So why have things changed for nurses, but not for doctors? Again, I assume it is to do with perceived seniority. I remember my surprise when the doctor who was called to assist with the delivery of my first child introduced herself by her first name. Even after hours of labour, this struck me as unusual! When the midwives told me that this doctor was coming to assist, they described her as ‘lovely’. She was also young. Maybe that’s why she bucked the naming convention. Or maybe she was keen to establish a rapport with her patients quickly. Either way, this is not the norm.

Some of my elderly relatives lament the fact that it is now usual to call someone by their first name rather than their surname. One of them mentioned this in the context of being a patient in hospital. Now all patients are referred to by first name, whereas in the past they would have been referred to by title and surname. My elderly relative found it demeaning that someone sixty years her junior should address her by her first name.

So, in the past, surnames were the norm outside one's circle of family and friends. But nowadays first names are the norm, except in professions which are considered particularly prestigious or in some way special. It's interesting how these things change.

11 April, 2015

Easter weekend in Venice

We were lucky enough to spend the Easter weekend in Venice. My husband and I visited many years ago and, much more recently, our kids have been telling us how much they want to visit the city. So, we decided to indulge them (and us!).

Venice is still as beautiful as it was last time we visited. Its shabby air and dilapidated buildings are what make it so appealing -- to me at least. We spent a lot of time just wandering the streets, seeing what we came across, and that really is the best way to experience the city. You find yourself in awe and experiencing sensory overload. There is so much to take in, so much to see, that you end up wishing you had eyes in the back of your head!

One of the highlights for me was Ca' Rezzonico -- a palazzo built in the seventeenth century and eighteenth centuries, which boasts some beautiful frescoes. The rooms in the palace are presented as they would have been in the eighteenth century, with furnishings and artwork of the period. Another highlight was the Secrets Tour at the Palazzo Ducale, an hour-long guided itinerary taking you to hidden parts of the palace which aren't usually open to the public.

Venice was full of tourists -- much more so than when we visited fifteen or so years ago. Whether this was because it was Easter weekend or whether it is just that many more people are travelling now than then, I don't know. However, as is always the case, you only have to turn down a small side street to find yourself practically alone, since the vast majority of people seem to prefer sticking with the crowds on the main drags.

The kids particularly enjoyed the 'watery' aspect of Venice and loved the various vaporetto rides that we did. We took an Alilaguna boat from the airport to Venice and this was a real hit -- approaching Venice by boat ensures some fantastic views and also provides an understanding of the city and its canals. The kids were on the edge of their seats snapping photos out of the window.

A weekend really wasn't long enough to see and do everything in Venice. Maybe we'll return in another few years to complete the job!

21 March, 2015

Blood is thicker than water...or is it?

The old adage that blood is thicker than water runs deep. Many people adhere to it, or at least understand it. But for a whole tranche of other people, this adage has no bearing whatsoever on their personal reality and they struggle to understand what it means. I fully appreciate their point of view.

I am an only child. My parents separated when I was very young. My father left the family home and, once he had gone, I barely saw him again. My mother's mental health has always been poor, which means that we have a fractured and difficult relationship. My contact with other family members was very limited (non-existent on my father's side), and they showed little familial interest in me.

As a result, 'blood is thicker than water' was a meaningless phrase in the context of my childhood. The idea that blood relations mean more that friends was an alien concept, since I had not had the experience of a nurturing family on which I could rely.

I have been lucky as an adult, however. I married into a large family whose members are supportive of one another and who welcomed me with open arms. I gradually learnt that I could trust and rely on these people in a way that was inconceivable with my blood relations. And my children have been raised in this supportive environment. There are two of them and they are extremely close, which is wonderful. But, what is more, they are very close to their paternal grandparents and they love meeting up with their aunts, uncles and cousins. They have a strong sense of family.

I wouldn't wish my early experiences of family on anyone, but they have undeniably given me an insight into a different kind of life. I am glad, in spite of that, to have been able to raise my children in a close, supportive family environment. For them, I guess, the adage that blood is thicker than water rings true.

13 March, 2015


People have very strange attitudes. One of the strangest, I think, is the attitude that people have towards others who are "quiet" or "reserved" or "don't talk much".

To be quiet seems to be construed as a negative thing. Someone who is quiet frequently attracts comments such as: "Are you alright? Only you seem to be so quiet." Interestingly, no one passes comment on  someone who is super-loud. I've never, for example, heard the following: "You're just so loud. Is there something the matter with you?" Or even: "Could you just be quiet for a moment, so that the rest of us can hear ourselves think." The implication, then, is that loud is normal; quiet is abnormal. Loud is good; quiet is bad.

I couldn't agree with this less. My experience is that people who are quiet are far better observers than those who never pipe down; they have a far better sense of what is going on around them; and they are far better judges of people because they actually take the time to listen to what others are saying. You can also be sure that if a quiet person does have something to say, it will be something worth listening to.

Furthermore, in my experience, being quiet has nothing whatsoever to do with lack of confidence. In fact, those people who are quiet are often the most self-confident, steely and determined of people. They are happy with who they are, don't feel the need to hide behind a barrage of meaningless words, and have the strength of character to tackle difficult situations calmly and with dignity.

Rather than denigrating the quality of quietness, we should, in my opinion, be lauding it. We have a lot to learn from such people.

28 February, 2015

Birthday treat

I had a fabulous day out in London last weekend, celebrating my birthday with my lovely husband and our two equally lovely children.

We went to see the matinee performance of 'Shakespeare in Love', which is currently playing at the Noel Coward theatre. The play was excellent -- really good acting and imaginative set. And the best bit was that the actors actually took several non-choreographed curtain calls -- not your usual two formulaic bows, but a genuine reaction to the audience's applause. The lead actress even looked surprised at coming out for the third curtain call, as if she'd been about to return to the dressing room, but had been ushered back last minute.

We then went on to dinner at Cantina Laredo -- a Mexican restaurant on St Martin's Lane that we had been meaning to try out for a while. It was very good. The food was extremely tasty and, because we were early, we managed to take advantage of the cheaper pre-theatre menu. The restaurant is huge and extremely busy, but still the staff are friendly and welcoming and the food arrives in good time.

All in all, a great birthday out!

21 February, 2015

Valentine's Day

I had a lovely Valentine's celebration last weekend.

The week before, I received an invitation through the letterbox from 'a mysterious admirer' inviting me to dinner at my own house. Of course, it was from my husband. He cooked a beautiful meal for me on Saturday evening complete with champagne, roses and chocolates. I felt very spoilt.

The kids were complicit, refusing to tell me anything about the invitation in advance, despite me asking, and very considerately watching TV in the snug on the night while we ate our meal together.

I really am very fortunate to have such a lovely husband and children. My husband and I have been married for 18 years and together for 25 years, so this just goes to show that romance doesn't have to die, no matter now long your relationship has been going!

18 February, 2015

The Oxfordshire Museum, Woodstock

I have been meaning to visit the Oxordshire Museum in Woodstock for some time, and the kids and I finally got round to it this half term.

It was definitely worth the wait! We really enjoyed ourselves and managed to spend two-and-a-half hours there, including a stop for lunch, which is longer than some much larger museums have detained us in the past.

The building that hosts the museum is beautiful -- a large eighteenth-century house in the heart of the historic market town of Woodstock -- and each gallery or room of the house includes a wall plaque telling you a little about the history and past uses of the room itself.

The museum collection is eclectic, but broadly covers artefacts from, and periods of history pertaining to, Oxfordshire. There are galleries covering dinosaurs, Roman times, the Victorians, wildlife, innovation, the people of Oxfordshire, and more. The artefacts are very well presented, there are hands-on activities, and the theme running through much of the museum is that history is about people and the way they live their lives.

The museum also boasts a spacious and lovely garden (full of spring flowers when we visited) with a terrace where you can sample the food from the cafe on warmer days.

An added bonus when we visited was 'Keeping up Appearances', an exhibition of women's fashion through the two world wars, which told the story of how changing fashions reflected the changing status and lives of women.

I would highly  recommend a visit to the Oxfordshire Museum, and if you want to catch 'Keeping up Appearances', make sure you visit before 12 April.

13 February, 2015

The many faces of old age

I have a number of elderly relatives and I never cease to be amazed by the different approaches that they adopt to old age.

Some never stop talking about their age; it is clearly a fundamental part of their lives. These people tend to be intensely concerned with their health, discussing in minute detail event the slightest ache or pain that they experience. They seem unaware that all people of their age experience this kind of discomfort and malaise on a day-to-day basis. An eighty-year-old naturally feels different, physically, from a twenty-year-old. These people also lose their zest for life. 'I am too old' is a common refrain that is applied to all kinds of situations -- the wish to no longer travel, to stay at home, to cook the simplest of meals...

By contrast, others make the most of their old age. They travel, socialise, entertain, and are probably even more active than earlier on in their lives. It is clear that they too experience the discomforts of old age -- you can observe them rubbing an arthritic hand, walking slower than they used to, sinking down gratefully into a comfortable chair -- but you never hear them talk or complain about these things. Rather than giving in to old age, they seem to meet it head on.

And there is a third approach to old age that I have encountered -- recognising that the end is coming, the people in this category start analysing their lives, looking to right any wrongs that they believe themselves to have committed. They are, I suppose, seeking atonement or some kind of closure and it is this that drives their actions in, and approach to, old age.

I suppose that these different takes on ageing are really just an extension of the individual's personality. A young person with a negative outlook is likely to grow into an elderly person with a negative outlook. Someone who has always embraced life will carry that attitude forwards into old age. But it makes you think and, more importantly, it makes you realise how you would like to be in old age. I hope that I still remember this when I reach that stage in my own life.

31 January, 2015

Walking with children

My husband and I love walking. Pre-children, we would go out every Sunday, come rain or shine, and do a brisk five or six miles. We would always come back happy, refreshed, and with the satisfaction of having seen things that we could never have seen from a car window.

When our oldest was born, almost thirteen years ago now, we carried on the tradition for a bit. While it was still possible to transport her in a front or back carrier, she came with us. But then she became too heavy. Once she could toddle by herself, there was no way she had the stamina to do long country walks. And then we had a second baby.

So, you get the picture. No more walks.

A decade later, now that the kids are grown and perfectly capable of walking, we occasionally try to do a family walk. But it's always a struggle. The problem is lack of inclination on their part. They moan about the car journey to get to the walk's starting point, the exertion, the mud, the cows...and, surprise, surprise, a walk suddenly becomes much less appealing.

Last weekend I made scones. We went out on a walk with the promise of returning to a home-baked cream tea, and that made quite a difference. The kids barely complained once. However, they did, from time to time, start chanting 'stile, scones; stile, scones'. Apparently the several stiles that they had to climb coupled with the scones that were waiting for them back home were the only things that made the walk bearable!

Result...I think.