WHAT YOU'LL FIND ON THIS BLOG

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Reasons why it's worth keeping up your shorthand skills

It seems like an ancient craft now, akin to basket-weaving or the making of quills, but I learned to write Pitman shorthand when training for my first career as a medical secretary in 1979. (I also learned to type on traditional typewriters with their clatter and bash and 'ting' as the carriage went back and forth when one started a new line.)


It's hard to imagine now, but in my role as a medical secretary, I would walk into a doctor's consulting room after he (in the 1980s, invariably 'he') had finished the morning surgery. He'd dictate fifteen or so letters to the patients' general practitioners or to other consultants, reporting on what he'd found or on a diagnosis, or referring patients on, and I'd scribble them down in shorthand in my little notebook in squiggles and dashes and lines and dots.

Inevitably, mistakes were made in transcribing the letters back. Doctors often dictated so quickly - some while pacing up and down while eating a lunchtime ham sandwich, having endured yet another late-running surgery.

Here are two mistakes I remember. The first one was a colleague's error. The second was mine.

My colleague worked for the Consultant Gynaecologist. She hadn't trained as a medical secretary so wasn't so au fait with the terminology and was learning on the job. One day, she took the dictation, typed up the letters, and went into the doctor's surgery room to get them signed.

She told us later what had happened.

The consultant had nearly wet himself, reading through one of the letters. We could hear his booming laugh from the secretaries' office.

'What have I done?' my colleague said to him.

She'd typed, 'Dear Doctor. Thank you for sending me your patient. I have investigated her heavy bleeding and recommend that she has a day at the sea. I will organise this as soon as I can. Yours sincerely.'

'I didn't say day at the sea,' the doctor said. 'I said D and C. Dilatation and curettage. It's a procedure to clean out the uterus. You'll have to re-type. Sorry.'

Our colleague was never allowed to forget that. We recommended each other days at the sea for months afterwards.

Jane's friends were jealous. Their doctors always prescribed tedious pills and potions. 


The second error, I will own. I was taking dictation from a Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon. When I typed up the letter, I wrote this.

'I have referred this patient with a gangrenous limb for a Baloney amputation.'

It sounded logical to me. Surgical procedures were often named after the person who invented them.

'It's not Baloney,' he said to me, when I gave him the letter to sign. 'It's below-knee.'

'Ah, that makes sense,' I said, as I took the letter off him for re-typing. 'I wondered why the operation had been given a name that made it sound like a bad idea.'




The only time I've used my shorthand lately, 35 years later, is as a party trick if an English lesson isn't going well. It never fails, even when kids are misbehaving, if you turn to the board and fill it with what looks like magic writing, and then, even more impressively, read it back to them.

The next step is to say, 'Who wants to know what their name looks like in shorthand?'

This can take a teacher right up to the bell, when she can then run into the English department and grab the biscuit tin, having survived one more lesson by the skin of her teeth.

No doubt it's a dying art: shorthand. But it still has its uses.




Sunday, 3 September 2017

Fran's Flood and the Firemen - Episode 3

If you haven't read Episodes 1 and 2 of the story of our holiday flood adventure and you wish to catch up on the details, they're here and here.

Episode 3 - the final episode, including the arrival of the Giant Bee Dehumidifiers

... We already felt well acquainted with Wednesday when daylight broke and it was time to get up, as we'd discovered the flood at 2 am and the firemen hadn't left until 4.

Neither of us had slept since then. Paul had been busy not-sleeping in a bed. I had been busy not-sleeping under a duvet in the living room. We felt disorientated. Did that all really happen? The flood .. the firemen ... the police officers ... the surpriseneighbour?

No worries. Absent-mindedly walking onto the damp quarry tiles in bare feet soon jolted us into the real world.

And we had proof that it had not been a surreal dream in the form of a fire officer's torch. Here's a quarter of Paul, holding the torch. On his face was a look that said, 'I'm trying not to enjoy how macho I feel, holding this.'



What about our morning tea?

To completely misquote Benjamin Franklin, for the want of a dry risk-free house, electricity was lost. For the want of electricity, a kettle was lost. For the want of a kettle, our morning tea was lost. For the want of our morning tea, Paul got sent round to Costa for hot drinks.

We drank our Costa buckets of tea and breakfasted on cereal, because for the want of a blah-blah-blah-blah you-know-the-rest the toaster was lost. At least temporarily.

As it turned out, it was lost more temporarily than we'd imagined. At nine, along came four workmen, sent by the owner, to inspect the damage. The four stood in the hall ho-ing and hum-ing and ha-ing. 'Don't suppose you were expecting this when you booked, were you?' one of them quipped.

'On the contrary,' I said. 'We particularly selected 'burst pipes' and 'severe risk to life via electric shock' alongside 'garden view' and 'dishwasher.'

'How long do you think this will take to get sorted?' we asked them.

'Not sure,' they said. 'We'll know when the electrician's been. He'll be along in an hour. We're just ho-ers and hum-ers and ha-ers by trade.'

We waited in. 'We'll definitely need to pack for home,' Paul said. 'People whose houses flood have to wait weeks for them to dry out before electricity can be turned back on.'

In my mind, I began to plan what would need packing first.

Sure enough, an hour later saw the arrival of a cheery electrician, not at all daunted by the sagging ceiling burdened by water from above, the still-dripping light fittings and an aroma called 'Damp and Musty' not yet exploited for its full potential by the giant perfumeries such as Chanel and Lancome. 'Sorting this out won't take long,' he said, pulling a plastic light fitting from the ceiling as casually as if taking apart a Lego house, and emptying the pool of dirty water it contained straight onto the quarry tiles. We had to jump back, as though from a passing car on a rainy day.

'I'll need a hairdryer,' the electrician said. 'Do you have one?'

I looked at his hair. Nope, it was dry. So he really did mean he'd use it to fix the flood damage.

'We'll leave you the key,' we said. 'We're going to Worcester Cathedral.'

His face said, 'Blimey. They ARE upset.'

'I'll be done by lunchtime,' he said, trying to comfort us. 'You'll have electricity by then.'

'That's not even possible,' Paul said, as we waited for a bus to Worcester.

The electrician was right, though. We did have electricity when we got back. We didn't have wi-fi (this relied on the house above us getting its electricity back, which didn't happen until Thursday). We didn't have any rugs in the flat (these were draped in the garden to dry, across the garden furniture, but if you imagined it as a contemporary art installation, and didn't want to sit on the furniture, it was fine).

We didn't have complete peace of mind (we could hear the thump-thump of the workmen in the house above and every now and again this resulted in a drip-drip through a crack in the hall ceiling and a few missed heartbeats).

We did have a visit from two of the firemen to retrieve their torch. Paul handed it to them, holding on to it for a tad too long as one gives over a body part one can't really spare. They tugged it from his grasp. He sighed. 'Thanks for lending me your torch and a tiny taste of your raging masculinity,' he said.

We'd stay for the rest of the week as planned, we decided. Yes, there was disruption, but we wanted our holiday.

We had reckoned without the Arrival of the Giant Bee Dehumidifiers and Mahoosive Fans.

On Thursday morning, they arrived in vans. I realise the way I've written that could imply that they themselves were driving the vans and, because I'm not entirely sure this isn't true, I will leave it like that. By this point, anything seemed possible.

We watched as men who never have to go to the gym and lift weights hauled the Giant Dehumidifiers and Mahoosive Fans upstairs into the Big House. They switched them on. We could hear the noise from our flat, like a swarm of monster bees above our heads plotting a world takeover.

A workman knocked politely at our door. 'Just to let you know we've installed dehumidifiers and fans upstairs,' he said.

You don't say? we said.

'If it's okay with you,' he said, apologetically. 'we'll put some in your hall. We need to start the drying-out process. You won't have to turn them on unless you're out if you don't want to.'

'We won't want to,' we said. 'We're too young to be put into asylums for the rest of our lives.'

In came our own dehumidifier and fan. The workman showed us how to turn them on and then said something else.

'Pardon?' we said, the way people do when standing under helicopters about to land. We'd watched his lips move, but that was all.

He turned the machines off. 'I said, they might get a bit annoying. Honestly, just turn them on when you're out. Are you going out?'

'In about sixteen seconds' time,' I said, 'funnily enough.'

As I didn't get a selfie with me and the firemen, here's something almost as good - a picture of me with our Giant Bee Dehumidifier. (I am standing behind it.)




So we did go out. We went for the rest of the day, letting the GBD and the MF do their work, and we came back late that night, turning them off. We tried to pretend we couldn't hear the hum from upstairs. In bed, I plugged in my earphones and listened to more of the World Service, eventually falling asleep.

Paul, however, slept not a wink. He told me the next morning that as the world got quieter outside the house, the persistent hum of the GBDs and MFs seemed louder and louder, until he felt as though they'd climbed inside his head and were then humming from the Inside of him rather than the Outside.

We packed early on Friday morning, ordered a taxi to the station, and came home to Leamington Spa. Our house was warm and dry, with not a Giant Bee Dehumidifier in sight.

On Friday evening I sent a long email to Customer Services at the holiday company, detailing all our experiences (although without the jokes and with no mention of bees).

On Saturday morning I received a reply from Customer Services saying that they were sorry we'd encountered problems and would be in touch as soon as possible when they had investigated.

This morning (Sunday) I received a happy, cheery email from Customer Services saying, 'Hi! Hope you had a fabulous time at one of our holiday cottages recently! Please fill in this form and let us know if you have any comments about your experience. Please holiday with us again!'



For those ladies still disappointed about the lack of visual evidence, I've found you a picture of a really, really hot fireman.




With all that heavy gear on, no wonder he gets hot. 











Friday, 1 September 2017

Fran's Flood and the Firemen - Episode 2

If you haven't read Episode 1 and want to, it's here

Episode 2 of our tale of flooded-holiday-flat-woe

...... Four firemen followed me hurriedly into the holiday flat.

(I'll say that again. I've always wanted to.)

Four firemen followed me hurriedly into the holiday flat.

Paul was waiting in the hall, surrounded by cascading water on all sides, as though he'd climbed into the Niagara Falls for a photo opportunity.

We explained to the firemen that:

1. The flat was owned by the people upstairs.
2. The people upstairs were away on holiday.
3. There was another flat next to ours but we thought it was empty.
4. Yes, we'd dialled the number of the owners while awaiting the fire engine and had left a message, but no one had picked up the phone.
5. No, we didn't want to die.

We pulled on coats and followed the firemen outside while they went to inspect the Big House. Outside the gate, the fire engine flashed its lights and kept its engine running. Curtains twitched in the houses opposite, and no wonder. At two in the morning, in the dark street, that much light and noise was enough to wake Sleeping Beauty early, consigning her to eternal spinsterhood and leaving the Prince, arriving at 100 years on the dot, also fated to eat Pot Noodles alone for ever.

From an upper window at the back of the house, on the second floor, the firemen found water escaping and coursing down the outer walls. So, the leak had started on that floor, made its way through the first floor, and down into our basement flat. That was determined water.

But how could the firemen get into the house? Forcing entry would set off burglar alarms, giving them another problem.

They used long ladders to check all the windows. It being the kind of house that makes our own house in Leamington Spa look as though it's shrunk in the wash, this took a while. But they found one window that hadn't been locked properly. In they climbed.



There's a twist in the tale.

Remember I said that there was another basement flat as part of the Big House which we'd thought was unoccupied? Well, emerging from it now was a sleepy man in a creased shirt saying, 'What's happening? I've just phoned the police. I thought I heard burglars in the house above.'

Sure enough, two police officers soon arrived, blue-lighting towards the house. 'We got a report that burglars had arrived in an emergency vehicle,' they said, laughing with the amused fire officers. 'Not very subtle burglars, then, arriving in heavy boots with blinding torches and a stolen fire engine.'

Neighbours' curtains double and triple-twitched.

At this point, things had got pretty convivial. There were the two of us, the newly-discovered neighbour we hadn't known existed, the fire officers and now the police. As I said in Episode 1, I was tempted to ask for a selfie. But, no, again, it seemed the wrong moment. I did think of saying, 'Shall I make us all a cup of tea?' but then I remembered: no electricity.

Paul and I went back indoors rather than shiver in the cool, dark night, and we sat in the unflooded living room by the light of a torch a fireman lent us. I think we said, 'Well, this is a holiday with a difference' at least three times each. A young fireman - I suspect apprentice - had been tasked with the job of mopping out our flat to remove as much water as possible while three others worked in the house above, doing the same. We could hear him at the back of the flat. Mop, mop, mop, squeeze squeeze, bucket of water down the toilet. Mop, mop, mop, squeeze, another bucket of water. I went to say to him, 'That must be hard work. I'm sorry I can't offer you a cup of tea,' and he looked up from his mopping, sweaty and weary, as if to say, 'It's actually more helpful if you don't mention the tea I can't have.' I brought him some orange juice laced with my guilt.

Just after four o'clock in the morning, the firemen had left, the police had left and the neighbour had grumbled back into his flat, also now in darkness and without tea-making facilities. Paul and I said to each other, one more time, 'Well, this is a holiday with a difference.' He climbed back into bed but I knew I wouldn't sleep; I snuggled under a duvet in the living room in my clothes and listened to the World Service news all about the Texas flooding victims. I felt, despite all, blessed.



Episode 3, soon to come, will cover the post-flood shenanigans including the Unexpected Arrival of the Giant-Bee Dehumidifiers.


Thursday, 31 August 2017

Reasons why Fran's trainers are drying on the radiator

The only other time I’d experienced flooding, before two o’clock in the morning on Wednesday, that is, was years ago while teaching a group of Polish graduates creative writing at St Mary’s College in Twickenham. There’d been significant rainfall and I was having a one-to-one tutorial with Eva, sitting together at a desk in a basement classroom.

She kept looking down at the floor while I was giving her feedback on her writing and I thought, how rude! It surprised me as the Polish students were impeccably polite and very hesitant to interrupt or lose concentration. But she didn’t seem to be listening, and here I was, telling her how to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, drawing on my lifetime’s experience of such fame and fortune  by imagining what it must be like. 

She looked down again. ‘I apologise to interrupt,' she said. 'Something very wrong on floor. There is water around our feet.’

Sure enough, the room was half an inch deep already in flood waters. We paddled to the door to find a panicked college official arriving to lead us upstairs to a safe exit. Later, the basement flooded significantly.  It’s possible that, had Eva not been brave enough to mention it, I’d have still been giving her tips on structuring a short story while water rose up to our waists and she wondered at which point it was polite to strip off and don one's wet suit and snorkel. 

We’ve been staying this week at a holiday flat in Malvern, Worcestershire. The flat is in the basement of a large, impressive family house. The family owns the flat we’re in, but are away themselves in the South of France.

I woke early on Wednesday morning to the sound of water. Water proper. Not just drip, drip, drip, but sloshing and pouring. I considered the alternatives. Biblical rain, such as that being experienced by the poor folks of Texas right now? Had Paul had a nightmare that he was a woman undergoing the menopause and, awoken in a hot flush, dived into the shower? Was he doing some secret midnight washing, having eaten chocolate ice cream with his bare hands and stained his teeshirt when I’d thought he was in the kitchen, putting away crockery?

I twisted out of bed, put my bare feet down, and decided there and then that paddling in water in the early hours was not my favourite thing.

I sloshed across to my trainers, slid my feet in, and peered out of the bedroom door. We'd left a light on in the hall, it being unfamiliar territory and our bladders being neolithic. 

The ceiling was crying in three or four different places and its tears were coursing down the walls. The flood had leached from the hall and was invading the bathroom, the toilet, the bedroom, our sleep, and our holiday in Worcestershire. 

I woke Paul up. 'We are having a flood,' I said. Once he was clear that this did not presage my early decline into full incontinence, he agreed to get up. 

I rang 999. 'Is there risk of fire?' said the man on the end of the line. 

I looked up. The ceiling wept like a hired wedding mourner, through light fittings, over wall switches, and down walls where the plug sockets are.

'I think that's a yes.'

‘We’ll be there as soon as we can,’ he said. 

We tugged some clothes on and then our walking boots. If one’s residence is impersonating a woodland stream, one dresses accordingly.



I waited at the end of the property’s regal drive, moving quickly as the blue lights approached, realising too late that if the engine turned into the drive and hadn’t seen me, we’d need more than a fire service.

The engine stopped at the kerb. Four firemen clambered out, still pulling on their yellow jackets.
At this point, I wanted to say, ‘Can we have a selfie? I need to show this to my grandchildren.’ But to everything turn turn turn there is a season turn turn turn.

No, no, we HAVE water, Fran shouted. Can you put that thing in reverse? 




All the experts say you should keep your blog posts short. In that case, watch out for the next episode of Fran's Flood and the Firemen, coming soon. 

Monday, 14 August 2017

Evidence that Fran now knows the difference between plain and dry



Last week, I stayed overnight at my grandchildren's home to look after them while their parents went to a friend's wedding. Elijah is five. Phoebe is three.

This meant giving them breakfast on Friday morning.

It also meant finding out that Elijah could teach me a lesson in kindness.

A short play, set in a living room

Scene 1

Me: Have you finished your cereal, Phoebe?
Phoebe: Yes. Can I have toast now?
Me: What would you like on your toast?
Phoebe: Just plain, please.
Me: Okay, I'll go to the kitchen and make that. Elijah, have you finished your cereal?
Elijah: Not yet.
Me: I'll do your toast after Phoebe's. What will you have on yours?
Elijah: I have Marmite, please. I love Marmite the best.


Scene 2

Me: Here's your toast, Phoebe. Plain, as you said. Elijah, I've put some toast on for you. It'll be ready soon.
Phoebe: (looks at toast in horror, as though I'd served up rats' brains sprinkled with cayenne pepper)
Me: What's the matter?
Elijah: You've put butter on it, Grandma.
Me: Doesn't 'plain' mean ...
Elijah: No, plain means no butter.
Me: Dry toast?
Elijah: Yes.
Me: With nothing on it at all? I thought plain meant, no Marmite, or no peanut butter.
Elijah: No, it means plain.

(There is a pause, while Phoebe looks at me with trembling lip as if to say 'You're going to ask me to eat this, aren't you? I know it in my bones,' and Elijah looks at me as if to say 'If she tries to make Phoebe eat this, we are going to have Armageddon.')

Scene 3 

Elijah: Actually, Grandma, I think I'd like toast with just butter today. (Moves Phoebe's plate to his place.) Phoebe can have my toast when it pops up.


How wise Elijah was, to select kindness and mercy in order to save the situation. He knows Phoebe better than I do. He lives with her. He knows what 'plain' means in Phoebe-speak. He knew she would have expected me to understand. He looked at the wider implications. He sacrificed his own preferences to achieve a win-win situation for both me and Phoebe.

The world needs more Elijah.

I sat there, watching him eat toast without Marmite that he loves the best, and watching Phoebe eat cardboard.

'You're a kind, kind boy,' I said.


He knew that, for Phoebe, toast with butter is rats' brains with cayenne pepper.

And so do I. Now.



Later that day, finding stones to make, as Phoebe called them, 'wipples'. 

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Reasons why Fran is nervous in the garden

We don't have an expansive garden. Put it this way, when Paul says 'I'm going out to mow the lawn,' it takes him longer to haul the mower out of the shed and plug it in than it does to finish the job itself. There's a zzsshh zzsshh sound for about twenty seconds and that's it done: tidy lawn, with its nineteen blades of grass short and neat.

He still indulges in a heavy self-satisfied sigh afterwards as though he's just mown the gardens at Kensington Palace or the Taj Mahal, but I'll allow him that, as I never offer to mow the lawn myself.

Sometimes I think it would be fun, though, while he's in the shed foraging out the mower, to run outside with a pair of nail scissors and do the job myself before he emerges. 'Da DAH! Surprise!'

We like to encourage the local wildlife into the garden but because of its size there are limitations. Bees, butterflies and tiny birds we can cope with. If a fat pigeon, a pregnant cat or even a particularly plump Queen Bee turns up it all gets a bit crowded and we end up having to go back indoors. Either that, or endure a claustrophic few minutes on our four-slab patio, wondering why we ever said we wanted to move from London to Warwickshire to be closer to nature. Be careful what you wish for, etcetera.

We hung a small birdfeeder out earlier this year on our pyracantha bush to encourage along the sparrows and the bluetits. One like this.


It's been very successful, so much so that sometimes there are seven or eight tiny birds balancing precariously on its edge. That's pushing it in terms of garden space. If the number rises to ten, I have to bring the washing in.

Despite that, without consulting me, Paul went back to the store last week and bought a bigger birdfeeder, more like this. The pyracantha can only just support it.

'What are you trying to do?' I said. 'Won't that attract enormous eagles and ostriches? Or dodos?'

In fact, what happened was that for a couple of days no birds came at all.

'I think they were a bit disconcerted by the change,' Paul said.

I told him I wasn't surprised. It would be like us heading off to one of these for a pint of milk or a packet of Digestives  ....



.... and finding it had turned into one of these ....




Gradually, the sparrows and bluetits are returning. I fear, however, that, finding such bounteous provision, they are going to tell all their friends. And then what? We'll have two choices: sit indoors, or stay in the garden, acting in our own version of Daphne Du Maurier's 'The Birds', flinching from feathers and ducking as sparrows, glutted and satiated on enough seed to feed the developing world, fly above our heads, grinning.


Monday, 17 July 2017

Reasons why Fran will now have more time to wait for the call from Vogue

Someone stopped me in a corridor at school last week to say, 'Oh, I hear you're retiring. Congratulations!'

Retiring? Retiring? How old does she think I look? Is my new make-up regime not effective? Have I chosen the wrong plastic surgeon?



'Not retiring,' I said, graciously, while thinking 'One more insinuation like that and I will bop you over the head with this Oxford English Dictionary.'

'Oh?' she said.

'Moving on from classroom teaching, though,' I told her. 'After the summer holidays, I'll be working in a learning centre which provides one-to-one GCSE teaching for pupils not coping in mainstream education.'

'One-to-one?' she said, with a breathy sense of wonder as though saying, 'Five years' holiday on a remote Greek island with Sean Bean?'



I can't believe it either. I've always thought my choices for my main day job were a) teach whole classes in a school or b) leave teaching as my main day job.

But then just before Easter I met the headmaster of a tiny little school which operates in my town, supported by a network of local churches, and which needed a teacher of GCSE English for three days a week.

'Let me cuddle you until you squeal for mercy,' I said nearly said to him, when he offered me an interview.

I did walk out of that interview feeling I'd fluffed the whole thing. You know how you go over what you've said, and think, 'You sounded like an idiot there. And there. And there. And there,' and wish you'd actually said this and this and that instead?

But he phoned me and said, 'You sounded like an idiot but we'll take you anyway .'

So, last Wednesday was my final day at school (independent schools finish disgustingly early for the summer and I have survivor guilt about it).

The joy of the new job is that I'll be doing what I love to do best: teaching English. Plan the lesson. Find resources. Teach the lesson. Mark any work produced in the lesson.

But teaching English in schools comes with all kinds of administrative baggage that won't be part of this new job: baggage which people tell you about but the reality of which doesn't hit you until you're drowning in it.

You know when Auntie Freda comes for Christmas and says she's only staying for two days but brings three suitcases, six carrier bags, two boxes, a bonkers dog, a parrot and a friend called Colin? Well, schoolteaching is like that, and I've spent fifteen years using up evenings and weekends dealing with all the extra baggage.

So, what will I do with my evenings and weekends now?

Well, I do still need other work as my three days won't quite keep the wolf from the door. So, I'll be keeping him at bay with some bits of freelance writing, private tutoring, proofreading and waiting for that delayed call from Vogue Magazine to do a cover shoot.

And you know that second book that I've been writing since the beginning of recorded time?....

Now there's a chance it might emerge, blinking into the sunlight.

And I'm very, very grateful for that chance. And happy. This kind of happy ....