WHAT YOU'LL FIND ON THIS BLOG

Friday, 15 July 2016

Reasons to eat plums

My husband came home from his allotment yesterday with some gooseberries.

When I say 'some', I mean 'enough to make a crumble to feed Warwickshire'.

It was a sunny evening. We sat at the garden table with the gooseberries in a giant bowl between us. 'I need to prepare these for the freezer,' he said. 'Do you want to help me get them done before we cook dinner?'

I stood up so that I could see him over the tower of fruit. 'No, I don't want to, particularly,' I said. 'But if I don't, I fear dinner will happen in the early hours of tomorrow morning.'

I sat down again, and began. He was using a tiny pair of scissors, but I was using my fingernails, which was quicker. Pick off the top. Pick off the tail. In the pan. Pick off the top. Pick off the tail. In the pan. Pick off the top. Pick off the t -

'This is a kind of hell,' I said, after half an hour. 'Did you hear Farming Today the other morning? They were saying that gooseberries were an unpopular dessert ingredient these days with Brits. I WONDER WHY.'

It's not only the hard work, though.

1. They're hairy. They remind me of cold-weather testicles. I told my husband this and he nearly cut off his thumb with the scissors.

2. They're sour, and the average crumble needs fourteen pounds of sugar to make up for it. Forget the sugar, and your face will look like a cat's arse for a week.

3. They're not unlike peeled lychees in their resemblance to eyeballs. (My husband preferred that comparison to the testicle one.)

4. Lots of people don't like them, so if you had eight people round for dinner, and had cooked a gooseberry crumble or pie, only two people would want it. 'A yoghurt, anyone? They're only just out of date.'

5. They go through the digestive system like a fast tube train through a tunnel with a stiff breeze behind it. I was going to say strong wind, but -

6. No one can agree how to say it. Some people say 'goozbree' and some people say 'guzbree' and others say 'goozberry'. I've also heard people call them 'goosegogs'. The world doesn't need any more conflict. Nobody has that trouble with 'plum'.

We were on gooseberry number 9,376,501 when my husband said, 'Why do people who feel left out say they're playing gooseberry?'

'When I've done another million,' I said, 'I'll look it up.'

Google came up with a very clear answer. 'No one really knows.' The most frequent idea was this, from DictionaryCentral.com:

Play gooseberry ‘be an uncomfortably superfluous third person with two lovers’ goes back to the early 19th century, and may have originated in the notion of a chaperone (ostensibly) occupying herself with picking gooseberries while the couple being chaperoned did what they were doing (gooseberry-picker was an early 19th-century term for a ‘chaperone’).

As for why they're even called 'goose' berries in the first place, Google doesn't know that either. My favourite etymological dictionary www.etymonline.com says helpfully, 'No part of the plant seems to suggest a goose.' This seems reasonable, although, do geese have testicles? Just saying.

Anyway, my husband says he's got three times the amount he brought home yesterday still on the allotment, waiting to be picked: enough to cure constipation in everyone in the whole wide world or ensure that no one ever comes here again for a dinner party.





Next time, Fran would add the sugar to her dinner party crumble





Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Evidence that a trip to the dentist isn't just a trip to the dentist

I've just come back from the dentists' surgery.

1. Is it dentists' surgery? Dentist surgery? Dental surgery? Or dentist's surgery? There are four dentists working there, but I only had one treating me, the Lord be thanked. Imagine! Four at once, peering into your mouth in the way the police might gaze into the darkness of a deep well scanning for bodies. Four dentists saying 'Open wide' 'Open wide' 'Open wide' 'Open wide' like a Gregorian chant or an echo across a valley. Four gleaming dental probes, all in your mouth at once, like an attack of metal scorpions. Hey, you dentalphobics out there: have you fainted yet?

2. It was raining when I set off to catch the bus: Proper Grown-up Rain, which has been falling for two days now, greying up the world and sluicing down drains with unreasonable gusto. So I took my husband's giant umbrella, measuring a mile across its width, and being the most anti-social umbrella in Christendom. To pass me, people had to balance along the kerb like tightrope walkers to avoid hurling themselves in front of buses. But the giant umbrella was shedloads more effective than the size 8 umbrella I had with me during yesterday's rainstorm. That one left me with a narrow dry patch down the middle of my body but elbows and outer thighs like papier mache, bits dropping off by the time I reached home.


For my next birthday, please 


3. On the bus, a woman on the seat in front was peeling the sticky 'discount' price labels from packets of broccoli and bread rolls and sausages, one by one, picking at them to remove any trace. Why? Was she shopping for a friend she was about to con? 'You owe me £14.10, Audrey, but just the £14 will do. Don't you worry about the change.' 'Aw, thanks, Joan, chuck. You've got such a generous nature.' [Stage direction: Joan sniggers behind her hand and plans to spend her ill-gotten gains on a beer and a Cornish pasty in The Dog and Duck.]

Woman on the seat in front, if you are reading this, please leave a comment below with an explanation.

4. I was seeing a dentist today I haven't met before: someone called Jane. No surnames now, even for dentists, apparently. Soon we'll be addressing our medics as 'pet' and 'love' like Northern bus drivers do with passengers, and giving them friendly punches or high-fives and saying, 'You must be bloody joking, you plonker!' when they tell you the price of your treatment. I used to see a private dentist (Tom, soon to be Cutiepie). But I received a letter a year ago saying that either I could stay on Tom's list, paying into a private insurance plan that would cost me nine million pounds a year, but would give me peace of mind not even Mother Teresa could offer, or I could switch to the NHS dentist.

I switched.

She was very kind, although there was an awkward moment when the tannoy called me upstairs ('Mrs Hill to Surgery 3, please, and try not to feel self-conscious as everyone watches you shuffle upstairs to your doom') because when I got there I shook hands with a woman in a green surgical uniform and said, 'Nice to meet you, Jane. This is the first time you've seen me. And my teeth. Ha ha.' She turned out to be the dental nurse and I had to do it all over again with the actual dentist who, from now on, I will call Honeybunny-Cheekypodge because we're - like - bessie-mates now.

5. I need a filling. Bah! The receptionist tried to book me in for next week. 'That'll be Wednesday 6 July,' she said. I frowned at my diary. 'But 6 July is a Monday,' I said. 'No,' she said. 'It's definitely Wednesday. Next week. Wednesday 6 July.' *awkward pause* 'Oops,' I said. 'I'm looking at last year.' The receptionist laughed and I told her, 'No wonder I'm a bit confused. That explains why I started peeling sprouts yesterday and putting up tinsel.'

Actually, I didn't say the thing about the sprouts and tinsel. I wish I had. So many missed opportunities. :(










Sunday, 26 June 2016

Reasons why Fran's ribs are fine but her feet are not

I bought a new non-slip bath mat. But I am a spectacularly unsuccessful shopper and could not sing, along with Edith Piaf, 'Non, je ne regret rien' because I rue 90% of my purchases.

Neither can I speak French, so that's another reason.

And she's dead, so singing along is probably too high an expectation.

We never used to own a bath mat. But our shower is an over-the-bath type, without the dimpled surface one gets in a purpose-built shower unit. Since my husband slipped a couple of years back while showering, fell forward, and landed on his ribs on the edge of the bath, we've used a mat. Yes, ouch. He broke two ribs and, as you probably know, medics do nothing for broken ribs these days unless the shards have pierced your lungs, your lips have gone blue, and your eyes have disappeared into the back of your head. 

I remember the Summer of the Spouse's Broken Ribs well, because four weeks later, with his chest still the colour of blackberries, we travelled to the Lake District. We'd booked a pretty holiday cottage and didn't want to cancel. 

Because we don't drive, we took trains and buses, and I had to manage all the luggage including a case the size of the Lake District itself. 

This was fine while we were on the flat, as the case was on wheels, but when we arrived in Grasmere, and took the 'short walk from the bus stop' that the holiday cottage details had promised, we found we had something like THIS to traverse first.




We made it, but the words 'solicitor' and 'Do I get the piano or do you?' had been mentioned on our way there.

Back to the bathmat.

My first response when I ordered the mat from Amazon was one of amusement because of the description of it. 

PVC Transparent Large Long Non-Slip Anti-Slip Shower Bath Mat with Massage Function (Green)

I have filed the description away because next year I'm teaching A level Linguistics and it will provide me with an entire lesson on pre-modifying and post-modifying adjectivals, ambiguity, noun phrases, the use of parenthesis, syntax, advertising conventions, and the most important lesson of all, don't buy this kind of bath mat. 

Here is why 'Oui, je regret everything' about my new purchase.

1. The description says it's green. Our bathroom's colour scheme is 'aqua' and the picture of the mat made it look a similar shade. It is not. It is a green so garish that, in the middle of the night, there is no longer any need to put the bathroom light on. If the window's open, the bath mat attracts moths, mosquitoes, and the occasional ship out at sea. 

2. It is so non-slip and anti-slip that, when you try to detach it from the base of the bath after a shower, its rubber suckers cling to it like stubborn monster-limpets, and the resulting noise means that people in New Zealand look up in the street and wonder if bad weather's coming. No, we're not going to slip and break our ribs. But we might pull a muscle wrenching the damn thing out of the bath and one day the bath may come with it.

3. Its 'massage function', which I assume is meant to give the soles of your feet a mini-workout while you shower, takes the form of raised pads on its surface.  But 'massage'? Imagine Astroturf that's been starched, or something like this.


Fran's new lime, almond and jojoba shower cream wasn't having the relaxing effect promised,
mainly because her feet were being pulverised to shreds

I need to buy another one but this time I'll go into town so that I can 'feel before I buy' and make sure it's a bath mat and not an instrument of self-harm. 

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Reasons why I loved being in Colin the Harsh's classes



You bump into someone in the street. ‘Sorry,’ you say.

‘No, I’m sorry,’ says your bumpee.

‘No, my fault,’ you insist.

‘My fault,’ they say. ‘I’m so sorry.’

‘No, really …’


And it could go on for ever, this quest to be the one in the wrong, if you didn’t both have shopping to do, letters to post, and other people to apologise to.

They say it’s a British thing. Whatever it is, my creative writing tutor, Colin, was determined to stamp it out.

I joined his class in 1995 when my third child had started school. During that first lesson, he asked a woman to share her work. She opened her notebook, announced, ‘I’m sorry – it’s not very good,’ and began to read.

He interrupted her. ‘Rule Number One,’ he said. ‘We will never apologise for what we’ve written.’

It took us weeks to learn that he meant it. If we launched into a bumbling, self-effacing, ever so ‘umble apology, he’d put up his hand, like a police officer stopping traffic, and say, ‘Start again.’

He wouldn’t accept any of the following:
‘Sorry – it’s not quite finished.’
‘I do apologise – I think it’s a bit rambly.’
‘I’m sorry – I had to rush this before I came out tonight.’
‘I’m sorry – it’s not my best work.’
‘Apologies for this – it’s a bit depressing.’
‘Sorry about this one – it’s not the funny stuff I usually do.’
‘Sorry, guys – I didn’t have time to do the usual edit.’
‘Gosh, how can I follow Simon’s? It was brilliant. Well, I guess I’ll read it anyway.’
‘I really struggled with this. I’m sorry if it doesn’t come over clearly.’
‘Oh dear, I’ve lost my place. Sorry, sorry. Let me just find it. I knew this was going to read badly.’

The need to apologise beforehand – or during - was as strong as a Delhi-belly urge: verbal diarrhoea in its purest form.

Sometimes, we’d apologise all over again for apologising.

‘I’m losing the will to live,’ Colin would say.

One day, he brought in a pineapple. Don’t ask me why he chose a pineapple. ‘Every time I sense an apology-fest coming,’ he said, ‘I will shout “Pineapple!” at which point you must stop explaining, justifying and second-guessing our reactions, and just read the damn piece!’

That was a turning point.

‘This is a piece I wrote last night about my grandmother’s funeral,’ we learned to begin, or ‘I wrote the start of a short story. Here it is.’

We could request particular critique, but only in positive terms. These were fine: “Could you listen out for sections you think are confusing?” or “I’d like to get the girl’s childish voice exactly right. Could you comment on that?” As Colin put it, ‘Self-aware is fine. Self-deprecating nonsense, no.’

He also pointed out that, sometimes, when we heralded a piece with ‘This is a bit rubbish,’ it wasn’t lack of confidence at all. It was over-confidence. We thought we were the new Stephen King or J K Rowling.

‘So, I’m not allowing false modesty either,’ he’d say. ‘It’s not sincere. And if you come to class thinking you’re Booker Prize material, you won’t listen to anyone’s critique. Go and join Embroidery or Spanish Cookery: something you think you need help with.’

Colin the Harsh, he was, but also Colin the Wise.

Anyway, I’m sorry if you found this blog post a bit …..


Oops! PINEAPPLE!!

Apologise one more time and I'll just throw the tin at you


Monday, 6 June 2016

Reasons why Fran prefers to shop online

Last weekend saw me in Yorkshire on a writers' course. We were given a task on Saturday morning: write about a journey. We read out our pieces on the Saturday night. This was mine and I thought some of you might identify with its sentiments :)





I would rather navigate spiteful whitewater rapids, I think, as I embark on a journey that terrifies me more. I would sooner scale mountains thick with snow and peril. I would, instead, fight through rainforests with only a compass and the threat of snakebite for companions. Yes, I would choose any - all - of these, rather than launch myself on this journey.

I am travelling, nudging, millimetre by millimetre, from the back to the front of the Saturday morning queue at Tesco.

No, there are no killer beasts here, except for unpredictable wayward trolleys, untamed in the inexpert grasp of Marjorie, who normally shops online, or Derek, who hasn't shopped alone since 1972 and is only here because of his wife's broken ankle. And her Stare of Death.

There are no crocodiles here, no lions, tigers, hornets or spiders. But there is the fierce bite, the deep sting of knowing that ahead stretches a queue of seventeen others. Each, like me, has a trolley piled to perdition with pizza and pastries and packets of peas. My quest up this queue of stultification will delete forty-five minutes from my life that I will never see again.

And nor would I want to see those minutes again, any more than I would offer myself a second time to a grizzly bear that had just wrenched off my foot with its teeth or denuded me of an arm with a swipe of its concrete slab of a paw.

And, no, here there aren't snarls and hissings from a rainforest's hidden beast-life that can cool the blood faster than the Grim Reaper himself. But, in front of me, there is a Small Child. A Small Child who wants Haribo. Small children who want Haribo - but aren't getting it - have screams that could slice into the soul of the Archbishop of Canterbury and divide him cleanly from every moral and compassionate instinct. This here is not a child. This is a monstrous wailing boy-creature that any midnight wolf would be proud to call 'brother'.

The queue shifts. Another millimetre of ground conquered.

But my journey - perhaps my last journey - has only begun.

Having detached his own tongue in his fury, Bobby was never going to enjoy Haribo again






Sunday, 22 May 2016

Reasons why Fran gets through a lot of toothpaste

I wasn't a spotty teenager. Phew, I thought. I've got away with that. And, until I was 49, I did.

Then, the day after my 50th birthday. BOOM! Mahoosive spots, all over my chin, cheeks and forehead. On a bad day, I look like the Lake District.

But it's not just me. 

Next time you go to see Shakespeare's Macbeth, watch Lady Macbeth carefully. When she does her 'Out, damned spot!' speech, I swear this isn't bloodguilt at all, but a rant about late-onset acne. Granted, last time I saw the play, I couldn't see the spots on her face, but I was in a £7.50 seat in the upper circle and so far from the action that when Macbeth said, 'Is this a dagger I see before me?' I couldn't have helped him out if I'd tried.  

Furthermore, my theory about Lady-Macbeth-the-Menopausal is supported by the fact that she has ripped off her nightie in the small hours and is wandering about naked, spouting nonsense. Any woman over 45 knows what that's all about.

She's a formidable woman, though, Lady Macbeth. If I'd been her acne, I'd have gone 'out' as fast as I could.

I tried her technique in front of the mirror. 'Out, damned spot!' I said to my reflection. Then corrected it to 'spots'. I had to get to work, after all.

Nothing happened.

This might be because telling spots 'Out! Out!' when they are already 3 or 4 centimetres 'out' and yelling to the world 'Look at me, I'm an uber-spot!' is futile. Maybe I should be shouting 'In! In! Get Back In, damned spot!'

This way, I may end up with craters rather than spots, but at least I could fill those in with some tile grouting or peanut butter or left-over hummus, and then slap on some foundation.

Just part of the morning routine


There's no point trying spot concealer. Has any product ever been so mis-named? Spot concealer is only suitable for teeny-weeny-meeny little baby spots, otherwise all it does is REveal. If all I had were teeny-weeny-meeny little baby spots, I'd be spending my money in Costa instead, sipping a latte and feeling smug about people in the queue who had real acne. But I don't. I have proper grown-up spots and all spot concealer does, once I've applied it in careful layers, like Pompeii, is announce them to the public. 'Don't bother with nature programmes to see a furious, pulsating volcano! Just look over here at this old bird trying to pretend she has smooth skin!'

So what am I, and Lady Macbeth, supposed to do? Join a model agency that supplies women to medical journals?

I saw in a magazine that if you put toothpaste on a raging spot, it calms it. Sometimes I do that overnight. Sometimes it works.

You're welcome to the tip. But remember. It's only an indoor solution. Don't do what I did, which was to blob toothpaste on my chin and forehead one Saturday morning, knowing we were going out with friends that evening, and then ...

You know what I'm going to say ....

I realised my mistake just before we went into an Italian restaurant to meet our friends, and my husband had to help me scrub off the toothpaste under a street lamp in Leamington's high street. It wasn't easy. I was using a face wipe from my handbag which had been there for a year and was as dry as stage fright.

And, of course, all I did was reveal the spots, which were still there, throbbing away like a 70s disco, ready to party, and shouting, 'We're out! We're out! You said 'out' and we're out!'




Sunday, 15 May 2016

Evidence that Fran may soon need a permanent carer to get her through the day

I caused a panic at school on Friday.

I went to my classroom, expecting to teach a class of 14 year olds. They were late arriving.

I laid out on each of their desks their marked books and an A4 resource page for the lesson. I turned on the projector and put in my password to display my lesson notes.

Where was the class?

I peered into the corridor, sure that I would see them come hurtling round a corner, puffing and panting, worrying about being late dawdling along from Art or Science as though on a beach in the Algarve.

But, no. Not a fourteen year old in sight.

I waited another few minutes. Perhaps another teacher had lost track of the time or not heard the bell.

When they were ten minutes late, I scurried along to the school office to see if I had missed a newsletter item saying they were on a school trip or having immunisations in the hall. Perhaps they had voluntarily signed up for immunisations in preference to learning about irregular sentences. It was possible, and reasonable.

'I've lost 9H,' I said to the three ladies in the office. 'Any ideas?'

'The Pied Piper?' one of them said.

Except that she didn't. I just thought of the joke, and wish she had said it, as it would have made my story funnier. So I put it in anyway.

Just then, along came a member of the senior management, in charge of that year group. 'You've lost 9H? What's happened?' She looked alarmed, as well she might. If I'd mislaid them, she'd be the one informing the parents that police were combing the building for their offspring, checking the drains and investigating a crack in the playground for tell-tale threads from blue blazers.

As Oscar Wilde's character Lady Bracknell would have said in an educational version of The Importance of Being Earnest, 'To lose one pupil may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose twenty-two looks like carelessness.'

But then one of the office staff located the class's timetable. 'They're in Maths,' she said. 'Period 5, they have Maths.'

'But I have them for English now.'

'You have them for English in Period 6. This is Period 5.'

I checked my watch. My face went hot like a slow cooker like an electric hob like a gas hob like a match on a puddle of petrol. You know how being embarrassed is called 'having egg on your face'? I could have had a fried one.

'Oops,' I said. 'Senior moment. Sorry to cause a stir.' And I turned back down the corridor, their laughter following me, to do some marking in an empty room with its books and papers all laid out for a phantom class.

When my students turned up, bang on time for Period 6, I told them all about my mistake I said absolutely nothing, pretended I'd just got there, like them, and taught them about irregular sentences.

Later on, I met the senior manager in a corridor. 'I'm sorry about earlier,' I said.

She patted me on the shoulder. 'You cheered me up so much,' she said. 'Other people's inefficiencies are always so encouraging.'

'At least I was there for a class which wasn't,' I said, 'and not the other way round. It's much more humiliating to be fetched from the dining room where you're helping yourself to leftover cake to be told you should be in Room 2 teaching eleven year olds about war poetry.'

'Or teaching them about mnemonics,' she said.

Except that she didn't say that. But I wish she had, because it would have rounded off my story nicely with a touch of irony, and I do love a bit of irony.  So I put it in anyway.


You come with me, children. I'll take you somewhere you'll never have to study an irregular sentence again.