Birthday Celebrations

I ran my most recent piece last Wednesday, to mark my birthday. In it,  I referenced a previous post which described the grand day out my two lovely daughters gave me to celebrate my 60th birthday. I thought it might be good to share again an edited version of that piece, as it was a lovely day and I doubt many of you will have seen it before. I’ve also updated it to this year.

I first posted the piece on my birthday in 2016. On that day I awoke – or more precisely, was awoken by,  a thunderstorm and torrential rain – to the thought that I was then 63. I’d never been that old before! But we are told that ‘age is just a number’ so who’s counting? Just as well, really, as I’ve now added another four to the score! Seven years ago I retired from a lifetime of work, on my 60th birthday, and to celebrate that milestone my two wonderful daughters arranged a special day out for me in London. I had commuted into the capital to work for more than 35 years, and this marked the beginning of my re-acquaintance with London as a place to enjoy, rather than somewhere I was happy to escape from on a daily basis. During a comments ‘chat’ with a fellow blogger a few weeks prior to the original I realised that I had never written about that day out. I would have laid odds that I had, but when I checked I found several photographs in my Facebook and Instagram feeds, but no blog posts. I decided that I would write something about it, and as it is one of my favourite posts I thought I’d give it another airing.

Due to their work commitments the girls arranged the day out for the weekend, Saturday 14th to be precise. This had the bonus of there being lighter usage of public transport than on a weekday, which made it easier to get into London and get around while we were there. They knew that I had a longstanding desire to take a ride – or ‘flight’, as it is officially known – on the London Eye, so to be honest I wasn’t surprised to be taken to the Southbank Centre, adjacent to the Eye. And yes, that was where my grand day out was beginning, with a flight in one of these:

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img_2696And in case you haven’t seen it before, that pod is part of a much bigger structure (see left). I don’t have a head for heights, but didn’t at any time have a problem. The Eye moves very slowly, and the only real sense of movement that you have is the changing scenery around you, as the ground disappears further into the distance!

London has centuries of history and many famous landmarks, most of which are visible from the Eye. Here as an example is the Shard, one of the more modern buildings:

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And this is Elizabeth Tower, previously known as St Stephen’s Tower, until it was renamed in 2012 to mark QE2’s Diamond Jubilee:img_2691

Before anyone corrects me, Big Ben is the name by which the clock goes, not the tower itself. A common misconception, which the pedant in me (I am, after all, a Virgo) takes delight in correcting! The ‘guide book’ to your flight is an iPad, suitably encased in a stand to prevent theft, which is programmed to show you where all the landmarks are as the flight progresses. I thought that was a nice touch. After the flight we also took in the exhibition attached to the Eye, which by total coincidence led us into the gift shop…

Having had a wonderful time, we then went into a nearby bar for a light lunch, before the next part of my treat. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting any more but shortly afterwards we were climbing onto one of these:

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Spot the operative word: ‘amphibious.’ Believe it or not, this little bus worked both on land and water. Apparently they were originally designed and built in the Second World War for troop movements, and the actual bus that we travelled in was 70 years old. After a trip around some of the landmarks by road, with a knowledgeable guide covering quite a lot of London’s history, we were driven to the side of the headquarters of MI6 – appropriate, I thought, for an air  of mystery – and down a ramp. Moments later, we were in the Thames:

We've fallen in the water!
We’ve fallen in the water!

We then went for a ‘boat trip’ along part of the Thames, which was quite an experience. To prove it, here’s a shot of the Parliament buildings – the Palace of Westminster – as seen from the river. As it was a weekend nothing was happening inside, but I’m reliably informed that on a working day you can see the hot air rising from here:

We all bowed in reverence, of course :-)
We all bowed in reverence, of course 🙂

Until that day I’d not been aware of this service, and it really was an unusual experience, which I felt very lucky to have enjoyed. Doubly so a few weeks later when one of the vehicles caught fire while on the river, causing a suspension of the rides until thorough safety checks had been undertaken on the entire fleet! There but for the Grace of God…

After all of that excitement, we ended the day in a lovely restaurant tucked out of the way in Camden, where to my further surprise I was treated after our meal to a cake, and a candlelit rendition of Happy Birthday To You from staff and customers. Truly, a lovely day and a perfect celebration I’ll always remember, made special for me by these two beautiful young women:

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Seven years on from that milestone we are, as you may have noticed, in strange times. Celebrations like this, or some of the others the girls have arranged for me, were definitely out this year, even if my health would have allowed it. Their work commitments – and busy lives in general – also militate against it, but we still found time for a partial get together. Yesterday my elder daughter came for a socially distanced visit, along with a little person who wasn’t around when I retired. Presents were given, and we had a lovely time. This is my favourite present:

And this was my favourite birthday card:

 

Both presented by our family’s little star:

You can see from that how we managed it: guests in the garden area outside my flat, while I took a chair out onto the balcony. Strange times indeed, but at least we still have ways to keep in touch – until the next lockdown, that is. Thinking back to seven years ago and to yesterday, I realise what is important in our lives. Without the love of our family, what do we have? I know I’m much luckier than some, and I’m grateful for it every day, even when we’re apart. Every time I drink from that mug I will treasure my thoughts of my granddaughter and my daughters – that’s a nice warm feeling to have, isn’t it?

Alone Again, Or…?

I posted this to my Facebook friends a couple of days ago:


I live alone and don’t have any signs of illness, but I could understand her precautions: as she said, the outfit was as much to protect me from possible infection as it was for her. But it was another gentle reminder of how our lives are being disrupted by an unseen enemy. In normal course, I would have been phoned by my GP practice to tell me that there was a blood test request form for me to pick up. I would then take that to the local hospital and join what always feels like half the population of our small town in the queue to be leeched. However, I had a text message on Tuesday from the practice telling me that they would only be doing telephone contacts for now, and the hospital closed all of its day clinics on Wednesday. The district nurse told me that their service had been tasked with taking on the urgent cases, which was a little scary: to be fair, she did say that I didn’t meet the criteria for urgency, but was nevertheless on the list for a visit. In all honesty it was much more convenient for me and saved me the return cab fare. But it got me thinking about how even simple tasks are being complicated, and how much we owe to those in the front line of caring for us. Would you want to be going into the homes of those who are potentially vulnerable to illness at any time, let alone in these Covid-19 days? I sure as hell wouldn’t!

The visit also got me thinking about my own precautions and care. One of the signs of Covid-19, so I understand, is a raised temperature. Time to dust off my thermometer, just in case. But then I realised that I hadn’t seen it since I moved flat nine months ago. Oh. No problem, it would be in the kitchen cupboard with my small stock of first aid stuff, wouldn’t it? Nope. Maybe it had been put away in one of the bundles of stuff that went straight into storage cupboards? Another nope. After all, thermometers are pretty small, so perhaps I’d moved it into one of the drawers in my lounge furniture – all three of them? Triple nope. Time for my usual response to this kind of situation: a muttered ‘oh bugger.’

Perhaps I could think of another way round this? More in hope than expectation I hit the websites of the major pharmacies, like Boots and Lloyds, and – no surprise – every single model was out of stock, even the ridiculously expensive ones which should really have been made of solid gold for the prices charged. Or would have been charged, if they’d had any. I then tried Amazon, to be met with a similar story. Most offered possible delivery dates from mid-April until well into May – I could be dead by then, ffs! Looking in more detail at the various offerings, I also noticed that, apart from their unavailability, they all had one other thing in common: they would all be sent from China. Now, I’m no Donald Trump (whose favourite band is presumably China Crisis), but that did seem a potentially unnecessary risk to take. So I did what any self-respecting (but not yet isolating) Brit would do in these circumstances: I made a cup of tea (not China) and sat down for a think.

As is so often the case the tea worked its magic properties. It suddenly struck me that, as this flat has much less cupboard space in the bathroom than my previous one, I had a small bag of bits in there that I hadn’t opened since the move. Hey presto! One thermometer complete with protective case! Joy unbounded! Well, ok, I’m a Brit, so I was a little bit pleased. A quick clean, to protect myself from my own ancient germs, and I gave it a test drive. All worked as it should, so I stored it carefully in the aforementioned kitchen cupboard in case I need it again. My temperature was right at the low end of the ‘normal’ range but there is no way I’m going to start worrying about that! That would be a tale for another day if there was any change, and I really hope I don’t have to write that one!

Returning to my starting point, I’ve also been spending a good bit of time thinking about those in the front line of caring for and supporting us. I worked for 20 years in the NHS and, whilst I wasn’t a clinician, I met a great many in my time there. One attribute they shared, as do all of those providing my own current care, was their dedication to what they do and to the people they treat. I didn’t laugh or scream at the nurse who came to see me: that would have been completely inappropriate. As I said earlier, I live on my own. I’ve agreed with close family that we won’t see each other until it is safe to do so: I suspect that I might be late for my granddaughter’s second birthday in June, but I’d never forgive myself if I caught something and passed it on to her, my daughters, or other family. I’m alone, not lonely. I will survive quite happily as long as I can get food and medications delivered, as now, and the nurses can work out a way to substitute my weekly bandage changes if, as I suspect they will, the premises I go to are shut down. Look back at what I said in my Facebook post: it’s good to feel looked after. However long this lasts it will be temporary, in the great scheme of life. I give thanks to those whose dedication is supporting me through this and will see me to the other side. We all owe them our gratitude.

I hope you are also taking care of yourself and, like me, feel well cared for and supported. And please heed the advice from the powers that be. They may, like ours, have initially been slow off the mark, but their advice is guided by science, which is critical at this time. Be well. Stay safe.

The Great Pea Disaster

Two years ago I published a post which garnered a lot of likes and comments, so much so that it is still bubbling around just under my all time top ten. I’ve spent some time over the past couple of weeks doing some housekeeping on the blog – hopefully invisibly – and when I found it again I realised that many of you won’t have seen it before, so I thought it worth reworking for the more recent audience.

The story was of my becoming famous. Well, I’d been featured in public, which must count for something, I think. Andy Warhol once said that ‘in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.’ I wouldn’t dignify my time in the spotlight as being that long but hey, we can all dream, right?

Some background is needed, to help fill in the gaps. Back in 2016, a guy named Rhodri Marsden asked on Twitter for people to give him stories of family Christmases. Rhodri is an author, journalist and musician – a member of Scritti Politti, no less – and was compiling a book about what made for a traditional British Christmas. My elder daughter, Katy, shared a couple of stories with him and, following his acknowledgement, we heard no more. Until May 2017, that was, when Katy WhatsApped me to say that Rhodri had been in touch and wanted to chat about using one of her stories in his book, as it was a perfect fit. Fame at last!

I thought no more about it until the following Christmas, when the girls gave me a copy of Rhodri’s book (other gifts were available). Here it is, in all its glory:

The book is a lovely mixture of funny and sad stories from contributors such as Katy, bound together by Rhodri’s witty writing. As you can probably guess from his subtitle, he based his themes loosely around the 12 Days of Christmas song. Very loosely, actually, with chapters entitled Eleven Sherries Swigging, Ten Carols Screeching and Five Broken Limbs! which is where I come in.

Nothing broken, in my case, unlike some of the other sad cases in the chapter, but this is me:

I would like to point out that the excitement of winning a whole pound on a lottery scratchcard wasn’t entirely the cause of my sedentary gymnastics: I was ill at the time. It was Christmas, and I was always ill at Christmas, according to our family legend. But no one really wants to know that, do they? Apparently my roll from chair to floor in a semi-comatose state was quite spectacular to behold. And it is now recorded for posterity on the printed page. Am I a star, or what!

We talked about the book for a while, and it brought back many happy memories of Christmases when the girls were little, not all of which were due to my various seasonal illnesses. Katy expressed a little disappointment that Rhodri hadn’t used her other story, though to be fair, after I’d read the book, I couldn’t see where it would have fitted in. Two years on,  he has shown no signs of stretching the material he collected to a second book, and I think it is a pretty good story, so I’m going to share it again with you now.

This one probably dates to when Katy would have been around 10 and Ruth 5. My (now ex-) wife always prepared the table well for Christmas lunch, and as far as we could tell it was childproof. Yeah, right, what did we know? A plastic tablecloth was laid on the table, above which went the usual linen job, all topped off with a paper tablecloth with a Christmas theme. For the kids, naturally. Despite the fact that there were three adults present (my ex-wife, mother-in-law and me) we made the elementary error of leaving the two member Junior Destruction Squad unattended for no more than a minute or two between courses, while we were getting various puddings ready in the kitchen. Suddenly, there was a huge commotion from the dining room, and a shout that none of us was expecting: ‘FIRE!!’

As part of the table display, my wife had set out a large glass bowl, filled with water and adorned with a decorative display of tea lights, and as by now Christmas Day was getting on a bit – lunch was never early – we had also lit some candles to brighten the ambience. From what we could glean from the subsequent discussion, Ruth had been attempting to move a paper napkin to her Nan’s place opposite her own, and had somehow contrived to catch it on one of the candles. Not content with her nascent attempt at pyromania, she then managed to drop the aforementioned napkin onto the table, having missed the bowl of water and tealights. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen flames leaping a foot or so above your dining room table, but it is at once both spectacular and terrifying.

What do you do to put out a fire? You use water, of course, don’t you? Being the nearest to a water source, I grabbed it and launched it at the fire, accompanied by four hysterical female voices screeching advice. The fire was successfully doused, but what I hadn’t heard in my leap into Fireman Sam mode was the warning from my wife that the saucepan of water I was about to use wasn’t exactly as I expected it to be. My brain went something along the lines of ‘fire-water-saucepan containing water- that’ll do.’ Unfortunately my eyes didn’t take in the full picture: the saucepan did indeed contain water but, also, quite a sizeable portion of leftover peas which had been intended for use in the Boxing Day bubble and squeak. Oops!

I’ll admit to feeling very smug and satisfied at the effectiveness of my firefighter act, followed a millisecond later by a realisation that the water I’d used seemed to be very green. The ensuing panic then widened itself to checking that the table hadn’t suffered any lasting damage – it hadn’t – and to using copious amounts of kitchen towel to mop up all the water that Dad had just flung with wild abandon at the dining room table. Having done all that, we then embarked upon the Great Christmas Pea Hunt. Have you ever thrown a saucepan of peas and water at a table? The little green buggers can travel some remarkable distances, I can assure you! It took quite a while, and there was a careful balance to be struck between locating and rescuing the errant veg and not treading them into the carpet – even though it was a green carpet we didn’t want it adorned with uninvited horticultural decorations. They were the wrong shade of green anyway. Eventually we decided that we had rounded them all up, and could now enjoy our pudding, though the occasional outrider was still being spotted several days later. For some reason, my suggestion that we rinse all the peas off so that they could be used in the bubble and squeak didn’t meet with universal approval – in fact, it was the classic equivalent of the Eurovision song contest’s ‘Norvège nul points.’ Well, I thought it was helpful, even if no one else did.

Christmas wasn’t always that eventful in our house. But at least, for once, they all forgot that I was coughing and sneezing all over them. If I’m honest, though, there have been better Boxing Day bubble and squeak meals.

As regular readers will have noticed I’m quite partial to a tune or two decorating my posts, and I wanted to find something suitable for this one. As far as I know there are no songs about garden peas, apart from a few children’s songs. I thought of trying John Lennon’s classic hit Give Peas A Chance, or Big Country’s Peas In Our Time,  but on reflection, this one seems kind of appropriate. It may not be the song with this title that you would expect, though:

Anything to be different but, as the lyrics say, there was definitely something in the fire and in the water!