Monday, 27 December 2010

Another year over...

....OK, not another year, but another Christmas at least.

Like last year, I spent Christmas Day volunteering at a local community centre which was laying on Christmas lunch for 50 "less fortunate" people. I put that in quotes simply because I don't know what else to call them. They welcome the homeless, the lonely, the elderly, the disabled and basically anyone else who would have nowhere/no-one else to go to on Christmas Day.

If I'm honest, it was a little disappointing after last year. I realise that I wasn't meant to be entertained, enthused or otherwise kept amused by the entire day but....! Yet again this year, I somehow got roped into organising the tea/coffee/soup etc. Really not sure how especially as I was quite determined not to but somehow I got embroiled in it with the mad (and frankly irritating) Margaret. Dade escaped into the kitchen with the organiser (Martin) and two lovely, eccentric ladies who I'd met last year! Having said we'd both rather be out front with the "guests" I think he got the better end of the bargain - on the drinks counter you don't really get to interact with people, other than to take their order for a drink and say hi briefly, and it gets pretty hectic. Like last year, the volunteers all had lunch at one table so we didn't even get to chat to the others during the meal. Martin said the reason for this was to give the volunteers "a break" but, to be honest, I didn't feel like there was anything to have a break from (except Margaret!)

The community centre itself is attached to a church but at some point in the last year, the minister and her family had relocated to Scotland and the church now shares its minister with a church in Eastbourne. That church obviously had a tighter grip on him this year and that's where he'd gone to give the morning service, so this church was minister-less for the morning at least. Consequently, there was no mini-service at the beginning of the proceedings as there had been last year, just a CD of carols. Most of the people didn't show up until about 12 for a 12.30 lunch so there wasn't much socialising to do in advance either.

Lunch, as last year, was very tasty. There was turkey/stuffing, mash, roasties, sprouts, carrots, bread sauce, cranberry sauce, gravy. The vegetarians had a goat's cheese and cranberry pastry thing (though no veggie gravy which was disappointing, for me at least). A pretty light and scrummy Christmas pudding followed, though with a very odd white custard that I couldn't really identify this year any more than last. Being a church hall, there was no alcohol, officially at least. However, a very lovely Irish disabled lady had brought a bottle of fake Bailey with her, mainly for her to drink but the remainder of the bottle she was insistent that the volunteers drank! We were very grateful, but had to be a bit surreptitious with it!

The minister did show up in time to make a short speech at the end of lunch, thanking the organiser etc and letting everyone know that there would be a present for each of them at the end of the meal. Unfortunately, what he failed to point out was that after lunch everyone was welcome to stick around just to chat and also for entertainment. One of the other volunteers had a couple of songs organised, I know one of the women told a story last year, I'd taken my guitar and Dade and I had a couple of very silly sketches planned (and even semi-rehearsed!) Added to the lack of warning of any entertainment, one of the volunteers (mentioning no names) started to clear the tables very obviously right at the end of dessert, to the point that clearly several people felt that they were being ushered out. By 3pm the place was empty and all the washing up, clearing up and rearranging of furniture was done. So no entertainment required which I'll readily admit I was kind of disappointed about. Very odd, given that we'd finished at nearly 5pm last year.

I'm going to sound, I don't know what, now - snobby? Not sure that's the right word. However, I sort of envisaged the people who would come to these things would generally be the homeless, the extremely poor and the elderly who really had nowhere else to go, no family etc. I noticed last year that there were a few people who I didn't think quite fitted the bill but this year was definitely more obvious. There were a couple of genuinely homeless guys, both of whom I'd met last year, and maybe three or four older people who probably had nowhere else to be. The rest of the places, however, were taken up with pairs/groups of people who seemed, to me at least, either too well-off, too connected or otherwise unlikely! Maybe I'm doing them a grave disservice, but it just seemed to me that a lot of them didn't NEED to be at a community centre on Christmas Day, enjoying a totally free 3-course meal. I readily admit that maybe a lot of them were there simply for the company, rather than the food and, frankly, who am I to judge?

All that aside, I really enjoyed the day and would happily to do it again. In fact, at the end of the proceedings, the organiser asked me if I'd be interested in being part of a small committee organising next year's event. I have to admit that I have reservations. I do feel a little hypocritical getting over-involved in a church event when I'm a self-proclaimed atheist. I'm sure they don't really care but maybe I should. Having said that, the day needs better organisation and (I think) it needs to target different groups for next year. I felt sorry for Martin, the organiser, as he'd pretty much put it all together it himself and, without the help of a minister, that was probably a bit of an ordeal. Consequently, if it doesn't look like it's going to be too church-related, then I'll happily help out with organising next year's event. For the time being, it certainly looks like I'll be here for it.

All told, and infuriating (and, I discovered, uninvited) volunteers aside, I'm still glad I did it again this year and I'd highly recommend the same kind of thing to anyone who really doesn't view the 25th of December as necessarily a day to over-indulge in vast quantities of food and drink, and get caught up in the obscene commercialisation of what is, in effect, a religious celebration which has become almost an obsession for society, and not for the right reasons!

Sunday, 12 December 2010

I would like to stress....

....actually, no, I wouldn't. Stress, that is. But I do. I am.

I'm normally fairly relaxed, chilled and stuff kind of washes over me. But in the last few weeks, that hasn't been the case.

My poor 89-year-old granddad is in a bad way and at the mercy of the NHS and Social Services. He had to be moved out of his care home due to a severe chest infection and cellulitis - once he was in hospital, the care home decided that he couldn't go back there because he required too much supervised care. He has advanced dementia but is (or was) fairly mobile. The problem was that he was still able to get out of bed and once he'd done that, was in danger of falling or collapsing. So the search had to start for a nursing home which would actually take him. The problem with elderly care in the UK seems to be that if you're just old but physically and mentally fit, there are plenty of places you can go, if you're physically impaired (confined to bed etc) then again you have a lot of choices. But as soon as you add dementia into the mix, it becomes a nightmare. Initially, it was going to be down to the family to find him somewhere to go but in the end the hospital care team found him a place in a proper nursing home. He's now there, but I found out today that he is now pretty much completely unresponsive, recognises no-one, is almost bedridden and is being spoonfed by staff. To have gone from an incredibly intelligent, erudite, entertaining man who spoke about a dozen languages to what is left is really sad and frankly, isn't a life.

My cat's also ill - she has eosinophilic granuloma - she's been to the vet three times now, been on two lots of antibiotics, been anaesthetised, had biopsies taken and got stitches, and is now on anti-inflammatories for at least three weeks. So far, it's cost me £250 and she may well have to keep having repeat prescriptions for the next few months. The drugs she's on are also quite likely to mess with her respiratory system, which is already weakened.

As per my recent blog, my washer/dryer decided to pack up (with a little help from the guy who was meant to be repairing it when only half of it wasn't working) - very stressful and cost £400 for a new one.

Cathy and I are frantically trying to finish two murder mystery bookings, which need to be ready for New Year's Eve and early January (well, that's when the parties are, they actually need to be ready in about six days). Normally, we don't have a problem getting them done in good time, but I think it's the fact that we're doing two at a time that's causing the issues. We're very aware that we need to be sure we don't get the plots, characters, guests and paperwork mixed up. We've also, for some inexplicable reason, made the plots far more complicated than usual - great for the people doing the plot as they'll have to think more in order to solve it, but makes life much more difficult for us.

In the meantime, of course, Christmas is sneaking up on me. Whilst, as in recent years, I'm not doing Xmas per se, there are still online cards to be emailed, mini pressies to organise, the odd real card to send to those rare people who aren't on the net, and various other things.

And then there's my crappy job. I can't pretend otherwise - I hate it. Crap money, crap conditions and I spend the day annoying people at home and being shouted at. It's turned out to be pretty much exactly what I thought an outbound call centre would be like.

However, trying to get into something else is proving almost impossible. I'm registered with every recruitment agency in Brighton and Hove but the daily emails they send me are full of rubbish. Despite supposedly being fitted to my criteria, they send details of Chartered Surveyors, primary school teachers, Web Developers, plumbers and who knows what else. Less than 5% of the jobs they send me would actually be relevant. And I do apply for those 5% - every one that's remotely suitable get my covering letter and CV. So far, not even an acknowledgement. The same goes for the multiple Gumtree ads I've replied to. I know it's probably more than they can be bothered with given the number of applicants, but I do think it's pretty appalling that you get nothing back from companies any more - no acknowledgements, nothing to tell you specficially that you haven't been successful in even getting an interview, and certainly no feedback.  I've advertised my services on Gumtree as a proofreader and also to give conversational English classes but no responses. The audio typing I'd been doing for a freelance company has dried up completely too. I'm desperately trying to avoid contemplating going back to the Civil Service in any capacity but it is becoming like fending off a lion with a blade of grass.

Oh and, of course, I'm broke. Properly. For the first time in my life. I've borrowed an embarrassing amount of money from both my parents over the last year, for which I'm very, very grateful but it can't keep happening. I'm living off my credit card and keeping my fingers tightly crossed that they finally get my tax code sorted out at the end of this month so I don't pay a stupid amount in emergency tax, and that they refund my overpaid tax. That will help a little.

I'm very aware that I've been self-absorbed and wrapped up in all of this recently, have totally neglected my mates (both here and in Madrid) and my family, and I've been stressing my poor flatmate out to the point that he thinks I want him to move out. I DON'T! For all those things though, I'm really, really sorry - I promise I'll get my act together in 2011.

For now, I'm off for a chamomile tea and a lie-down in a darkened room.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Free education - free for whom?

Since the student demos have been in the news so much recently, it got me thinking about the whole "free university education" issue.

Education in the UK is only compulsory up to the age of 16. After that, it's entirely optional (though personally I think it should be compulsory up to the age of 18 and if you choose to leave school before then or get expelled, you shouldn't be entitled to any unemployment benefits in the future - but that's a whole different bee in my bonnet!)

Now, once upon a time, only a very small minority of people went on to further education - most didn't even continue on to Sixth Form College or Technical College etc, let alone university. It may well have been seen as something that only better-off kids did - though I'm not quite clear why that would be - the education was totally free then as far as I know so it shouldn't have made any difference how rich or otherwise you were. The only thing I can assume is that if you came from a lower-income family, there was more of an imperative for you to go out and work so you could help support the family. I'm quite certain it had nothing to do with intelligence. Of course, there is always the chance that it was snobbery and that it was simply that universities didn't want poorer people attending. Who knows?

I digress. As the number of people wanting to attend university rose, so did the cost - to both the universities and the taxpayer. I'm not saying that more people wanting to gain a degree is a bad thing, but it does depend on why they're doing it. In my current job, I work with quite a lot of students who are in their first couple of years at uni. I've heard some of them say that they're there not because of some compelling desire to learn, or because they have some particularly high-brow career in mind which absolutely requires a degree, but simply because at the age of 18 they either didn't know what they wanted to do for a living, or simply didn't fancy getting a job. Many of them do also seem to be fitting the stereotype of the heavy-drinking, ever-sleeping, doing-no-work student. Two of them yesterday said that they hadn't actually attended any lectures, tutorials or even been near the university for two and three weeks respectively. I'm really not clear how that's something to be proud of! One of them was on one of the demos last week. So let me get this straight - she wants me, via my taxes, to pay for her to have a free education, but she doesn't actually plan to work at it? So I think one of my objections is pretty clear now.

My second objection is that from the way many people are talking, you would think that the students or their families are being asked to turn up with a suitcase full of used fivers at the beginning of term (totalling between £3500 and the new maximum fee of £9000 for a 3 or 4 year degree) in advance. No! There are still grants, bursaries, scholarships etc etc. Many will still get it paid for and then not have to start paying it back until they're earning £21,000. So if they leave uni and either choose not to work, choose to continue in education or take a job at a lower salary, they're not going to have to pay it back anyway. And if they do make use of the degree and get into a job that's paying them that sort of money, why shouldn't they be expected to give something back?

On a more personal note, if higher/further education is to be free for all, surely it really should be for all. There are several adult education courses I fancy taking, either for personal development or to improve/change my career prospects. I know plenty of other people who would love to go and get a couple of extra A Levels, learn a language, do a vocational course etc - do we get that for free? No, of course we don't. We have to find the money to pay for the course up-front, then pay a fee for any associated exam, pay for transport/parking to the college/university etc. Perhaps the taxpayer would like to cough up for that too. Yeah. Thought not.

Much like for most things, I'm all in favour of means-testing. I realise that's more difficult with education as most people don't have any "means" at the age of 18 - and I don't think that parents should be expected to fund a degree either unless they really want to. So what is currently being suggested pretty much fits in exactly with how I think it should work. Do your degree. Pay for it later if and when you're earning enough. Is that really so unfair?

I've got EEG on my face!

Gumtree was yet again responsible for providing a weird distraction from daily life. This time, it was an ad for paid volunteers for a psychological study. It seemed interesting and, to be honest, an easy way to make a few quid.

So I fired off an email a couple of weeks ago and got back a message asking me to complete some online personality questionnaires. I did them, and submitted the results to Mindlab as requested. I wondered soon after if it was just a way of getting responses to the online test because once the results had been received, they emailed simply saying that if you were then chosen to take part in an actual study, then you would get the £5 payment for filling in the questionnaire. To be honest, I didn't expect to hear from them again.

However, last Sunday I got a phone call asking if I could go to the University of Sussex the next day to take part in an actual study, involving being hooked up to an EEG, for which I'd be paid £20 (plus the £5 for filling in the personality test). Dade had volunteered for the very same study so we elected to go along at the same time, either for moral support or a mutual opportunity to laugh at each other, I'm not sure which.

So a freezing Monday morning found us mingling with the students on a train to Falmer. We checked into the Mindlab centre and met the four people who would be conducting the tests. They were a fairly young and amusing bunch, though the office looked a little thrown together (and the walls moved more than the ones on Crossroads!)

Before we knew it, we were being wired up - me in a very fetching tight-fitting cap with Polo-sized holes in, and a weird strap that attached the cap to a chest strap. Once secured, some really unpleasant electrode gel was squeezed into the holes (and all over my hair) before the elctrodes were attached and the signals were checked. Once that was done, I resembled some kind of multi-coloured Gorgon - or at least that was what I was told - I couldn't see myself. Very unfairly Dade could move in his seat and spy on me but I was practically velcro-ed to the back of my chair and couldn't reciprocate. I should just be grateful he didn't get a photo!

Once all the signals were being picked up OK, the procedure started. First, I was shown my "resting" brainwave - although initially even relaxed and with no visual stimuli, mine looked like the seismic readout of an earthquake. However, this turned out to be a glitch and it finally settled down. To show how important it was to remain as still and calm as possible, they asked me to blink a couple of times and also to clench my teeth. When I did so, the readout wnet wild. Finally, the actual test got underway - we were moved to our designated tables, the lights were dimmed and off we went. There were some control exercises - following dots round a screen with your eyes, presumably so that the eye-tracker could be tested, then counting the number of dots that appeared for a few seconds and shouting the answer out to the technician. That one was a bit disconcerting because our tests had been started almost simultaneously but Dade's just a little ahead. I could actually hear what number he was saying and it made me paranoid every time I counted a different number of dots, even though I couldn't be completely sure that we were doing exactly the same test! They then showed some random video clips of varying degrees of boringness (some Juliette Binoche rubbish), sentimentality (Forrest Gump) and violence (American History X). Once the controls were complete the actual study began. I'm not going to say with what we were actually shown because a) it's very boring and b) we signed a confidentiality agreement. Suffice to say, it involved looking at various pictures, accompanied by the most annoying voice in the world and then saying a number between 0 and 10 to say how much fun etc we thought the pictures looked. The actual test probably only took about 30% of the time!

Once done, I was disconnected from the apparatus and the cap was peeled off my head. Bleurgh. The gel was everywhere - my hair was all gunked up with it and was plastered to my head. Mmmmm, nice! Just as well my coat had a hood!

So off I trotted with my £25 in my pocket for my trouble - not bad for 75 minutes of weirdness.

I'm on their books now for future studies so we'll see if anything interesting crops up.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Not so glamorous assistant

Debbie McGee? Dr Watson? Mutley?!!

OK, so my first foray into the glamourous world of "photographer's assistant" was an interesting one.

In an attempt to get some portraiture experience, Dade had advertised his services for free to anyone who fancied having their portrait done. The first respondent was a young guy called Alex, who asked if Dade could make him "look good".

I happened to be free on the afternoon they had arranged to meet and apparently an extra pair of hands might come in useful, so I tagged along. We waited in the pre-arranged meeting place, Add The Colour, wondering if a) he would turn up, b) how we would know it was him and c) what Dade would have to work with!

Only a couple of minutes later, a rather dapper young man entered, looking a little lost. Was it him? Aha - he went to the counter and said "I'm looking for Dade". Well, it was either him or a very spooky coincidence! Rather pleasingly, it was him. He told us a little about himself - half-French, half-English, cabin crew out of Heathrow, had lived in Canada and basically wanted some decent photos of himself as he said he usually didn't like being in photos.

We headed to the seafront and the pier, the chosen locations for the shoot. On the way, Alex stopped off at a florist's as he wanted a flower as a prop for the photos. The usual selection of roses, carnations and lilies weren't deemed suitable due to either their size or their colour, but one quite unusual one jumped out at us all - Alex went in to get one and discovered it was, in fact, an ornamental cabbage! On reaching the seafront, the shoot began.

Alex was a very natural subject, happy to be directed and had some good ideas of his own. My not-so-glamorous job pretty much involved carrying the camera bag and lenses, Alex's bag, coat and other paraphernalia and generally being vaguely useful. I must admit that had the subject not been so easy on the eye, I might not have lasted the two hours. It was getting a bit chilly, the sun was disappearing quite fast so it became a bit of a race against time to get the final set of photos under the promenade arches. As it got a little gloomier, I got a "real" job - holding the remotely-fired off-camera flash - I even occasionally held it in the right place! This was a particularly pleasant job when Alex decided he would rather like some shots without his top on. Sigh!

Anyway, it was a fun afternoon, Alex was very friendly and sweet, and it was interesting to finally watch Dade work properly. Alex loved the shots - so he should, they're really good.

If you want to read Dade's blog about it, and see the actual pics, head HERE

Monday, 29 November 2010

Chilly climate change collaboration co-ordination

On Saturday morning, I spent a freezing four hours on Brighton seafront (sorry, Hove (actually) Lawns). I'd been alerted a week or so earlier to an ad on Gumtree for people to get involved in something very secret - the ad revealed that it was something to do with Earth350, the giant art side of climate change awareness group 350. I replied to the ad and received a very mysterious reply thanking me for volunteering to help co-ordinate the group! Had I? Well, apparently I had. It gave me a time and location and two very strict instructions - 1) Wear all black and 2) DO NOT REVEAL THE LOCATION PUBLICLY!

The general idea was that 1800 people were to make up the outline of King Canute attempting to hold back the sea, and the image was to be photographed from a plane. The clear (?) deep meaning was the futility of trying to control nature. The image itself had been designed by Thom Yorke of Radiohead (no, I wouldn't have known who he was either).

So like a pair of secret squirrels, Dade (one of the official photographers) and I headed for the seafront on Saturday morning. I peeled off at the Peace Statue to meet the other volunteers - as usual a random bunch of both locals and "outsiders". We were given a briefing which, to be honest, didn't tell us much other than the very Bond-esque use of codewords over the radio for emergencies, punch-ups (!) and lost children. We were then shepherded up to the main area and given very fetching blue ponchos for later, and hi-vis vests for now. For one horrible moment, I was reminded of being back at Gatwick on the airfield but the feeling passed quickly and fairly painlessly.

We finally found out that basically we were there to try to control the 1800-odd volunteers and interested passing public, directing the volunteers to where they needed to go to be assigned a space in the picture, explaining to the public what was happening, giving them the website address, telling them that there were enough volunteers thanks, and ensuring no-one from the press talked to anyone they shouldn't!

Suitably attired in our lovely stewards' hi-vis vests, we trailed after the co-ordinator, being deposited one at a time as a kind of human circumference marker. Some of the stewards were placed a disappointingly long way away from the action - I came very close to being one of them but successfully stared at my feet and shuffled about for long enough for someone else to be picked on. A very friendly music student and I were finally placed right by the edge of the picture. All this by about 10.45am, with the public participants not due to arrive until 11.30am and the actual photo not being taken until around 1pm!

The top temperature for the day was forecast to be around +2 with a chance of snow - brrrrrrr. My 2 layers, coat, scarf, fingerless gloves, one pair of socks and furry-lined boots quickly proved themselves inadequate (and yes, as most of you know, I don't particularly feel the cold!) So there was a lot of bouncing around, jumping up and down, swinging of arms etc to stave off hypothermia. Some of the earliest participants to arrive really should have dressed more suitably. One guy near me was wearing just a T-shirt and fairly thin trousers. The blue poncho he was given in order to be part of the picture really didn't afford him any protection from the rather brutal elements and he had to stand there for the best part of 90 minutes! Once the participants had started to arrive, there was at least the distraction of trying to direct them to where they needed to be and watching the whole thing take shape. The people in charge, who appeared to be a mixture of 350 staff (activists?) and a team of choreographers, plus the press and film crew were busy ushering the poncho-clad volunteers into the shape although, to be honest, from ground level it was almost impossible to tell how it was looking.

Finally, all was ready - the stewards were told to remove the hi-vis vests, replace them with the ponchos and blend in with the picture. There was a quick run-through, then a horn sounded, the plane appeared overhead and we all dutifully turned  and pointed out to sea. We had to hold the position for a good five minutes until another horn signalled the end. There was a rather unimpressive self-congratulatory round of applause and that was that. The stewards took up their final positions along the street, attempting to stop 1800 people from all trying to cross the main road at once - an exercise in futility if ever there was one. We then discovered that we were also to do a quick sweep of the lawns, removing any obvious litter (presumably based on the "Take only photographs, Leave only footprints" ethos of ethical tourism), then we collected and sorted the discarded ponchos and we were done.

Dade and I wandered back home, accompanied by a rather pathetic flurry of snow, not entirely clear what the finished product would actually look like but glad that we'd taken the time to be part of something unusual, if nothing else.

I didn't even take my camera, so for a different view of the event and some great photos go HERE

Friday, 26 November 2010

Repair my arse!

Please note - the title is neither a request nor a demand! Admittedly, there should be a comma in there but I omitted it shamelessly for effect.

The point? The point is my washer/dryer. A few days ago, the dryer part of my combination washing machine/condenser dryer decided to give up the ghost. Washing machine = fine. Dryer = buggered. Needless to say, it's way out of its warranty so it was down to the Thomson Local Directory to suggest someone to come and fix it. Other people always seem to happen to just know someone who can do this sort of thing, but I don't. I randomly picked a company that said they did same-day repairs and didn't charge a call out fee. Within 4 hours, they said. 45 minutes later, Neil and his large toolbox were at the door. Promising, I thought.

I gave him the info, including the fact that I'd had the same problem before with this machine and what I'd been told it was (simply the heating element of the dryer part of the circuit board). "Leave me to it", he said. Dade and I retired to the safety of the living room to indeed leave him to it. There ensued grunting, dragging, crashing, swearing etc but to be honest, that wasn't surprising. I have a tiny kitchen which doesn't lend itself well to large appliances being hiked out from under the worktop and then taken apart. Shortly afterwards, we heard what sounded like rather a lot of water followed by Neil saying "Um, have you got any kitchen roll?" I entered the kitchen to find water everywhere - the floor, the worktops, the walls. He'd already used a teatowel to mop a load up. More mopping ensued and he said he was fine to carry on. Once back in the living room, the next worrying noise was a repetitive clicking, which I recognised as the ignition switch for the gas hob. I went back to the kitchen and found him attacking the ignition switch with kitchen roll while it clicked away happily. The fact that I had no idea where the actual cooker is plugged in didn't help as it meant I couldn't cut off the power to it so it continued to click for a good 20 minutes. At which point, Neil then said "Have you got a hairdryer?" Working on the assumption that he hadn't decided to suddenly sort out his coiffure, I retrieved my rarely used and frankly almost pointless hairdryer and delivered it to him. "It's like this", he said, "One of the hoses came off because it was too short and hadn't been installed correctly, and water went everywhere as you know. A lot of it went inside the machine so I need to dry it out before I can fix the dryer". I then watched him hang the hairdryer upside-down inside the machine - not inside the drum, but into the inner workings of it via the missing top cover. Unable to look, I went back in the sitting room to rejoin Dade who had been watching/listening to all this with, I'm sure, slight amusement but some sympathy! A couple of minutes later, we heard a loud pop and the now familiar clicking noise stopped. Given how annoying the noise had been, you'd have thought that would be a good thing but the addition of the loud pop into the mix gave it an air of disaster. Off to the kitchen with me again, where this time Neil said he'd been trying to dry out the igntion switch with the hairdryer, and had obviously shorted it. He was very quick to point out that 1) he's not an electrician so couldn't just fix it and 2) he's not qualified to touch gas cookers. I was starting to wonder if he was qualified to do anything at all. The upshot at this point was that the inner workings of the machine needed time to "dry out naturally" so he would come back the following afternoon at 2.30 to finish the repair (and at the same time, bring me one of those gas ignition lighter gun things so that I could light the gas hobs).

The next day, I got home at 2.29, eagerly awaiting Neil's arrival, as by this time both Dade and I were pretty desperate to do some washing. Neil turned up, disappeared into the kitchen again for half an hour then called me in. All ready to pay up and wave goodbye, I was a bit concerned to see him still sitting on the floor and all the lights on the front of the machine flashing. "Um, unfortunately, I'm not going to be able to get it fixed for you today", he said. "Oh well," I said, "as long as the washing machine's still working, I can dry stuff on the radiators for a few more days". "That's the thing", he continued. "I can't get it to work at all now. The flashing light code is telling me that there's a problem with the motor and the motherboard..." At this point, I was as bored as you probably are now. Ten more minutes of excuses and explanations were forthcoming, none of which changed the simple fact that 24 hours earlier, I'd had a washing machine but no dryer and now I had neither. Nor did he bring me a hob ignition thing, of course!

Neil's solution - "I have a mate who sells reconditioned washer/dryers, installs them, takes away the old one and gives you a 3-month guarantee on the recon one". Oh, you do, do you? How bloody convenient! He then offered to try and get me a second-hand motherboard and fit it for free, but if he couldn't do so, he would get his mate to call me to see if I was interested in buying a machine. Less than two hours later, and with no call from him about the motherboard, his mate called me and did indeed ask if I wanted to buy a replacement machine. I told him I had no idea yet as I was still waiting for a call from Neil. He hung up pretty fast when I didn't immediately say I wanted to buy from him. What a lovely little set-up they have going, eh? I'm trying not to be cynical but it's damn difficult.

The ad in the Thomson Local says that the company in question (who I have a feeling might just consist of Neil) is "insured". Hmm, interesting. Insured against completely knackering my washing machine, breaking my hob ignition button and soaking most of my kitchen, I wonder? Probably not.

I feel a trip/call to Citizen's Advice coming on. In the meantime, it's the launderette for us while I work out if/how to afford a new/replacement machine or how to sue him for everything he's got!

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

It's the Work, the Working, Just the Working Life

So - the market research call centre has availed itself of my services for just over two months now. It was never a job I'd considered before, especially as cold-calling seemed like the most demoralising way in the world to earn a crust. The job details were a little misleading, suggesting that we would be calling people who had either said they were happy to be contacted by phone or were actually expecting a call. Not so! Quite simply, various companies ask our market research company to conduct customer satisfaction surveys by telephone with their customers. However, it's safe to say that most of those customers have no idea that their contact numbers will be used in this way. No doubt, it's somewhere in the small print of their contracts, or one of those little tick boxes, but really - who reads those?

It's been an interesting experience if for no other reason than hearing the many and varied reasons people come up with for not being able/willing to participate in the survey at that time (or at all). Some of my favourites so far are:

- But I'm watching Countdown!
- I would but I'm just going out to buy plums.
- God, ten minutes is a REALLY long time!
- My son's got a blister so I can't possibly.
- It's Sunday - the day of our Lord. Sod off. (Spoken by a vicar!)
- Sorry, my biscuits will go soggy if I do it.
- I'm on a piss-up at the moment so it might not be the best time to be asking me questions.
- Are the government paying you to do this because you can't get a real job? (Asked to one of my colleagues)
- I'm in the bath so I would sound all bubbly if I talked to you.
- No, my wife won't want to do the survey. But, Emily (!) you sound very sweet and lovely so I can promise that Santa will look after you very, very well this year.
- I know you mean well, and it's probably an awful job, but I just don't want to talk to anyone at the moment. I'm so very very sorry.
- Can I take the survey in the shower?
- I can't stop now. I'm just looking for a hamster that's gone missing.

As expected, I've also been shouted at, sworn at, told where I can stick my survey, and generally abused! And of course, all of these tirades have to be met with a completely fake, sickly-sweet "Well, thank you for your time anyway. Goodbye." Mind you, by the time I've reached the second word of that, they've usually hung up.

It's easy to be pretty thick-skinned about these when they only occur once in a while but if several of them crop up consecutively, I'll admit it does get to me. One day last week, on a shift due to finish at 9pm, I was on the verge of walking out at 7pm. For a solid half an hour, everyone I spoke to was either rude, unhelpful, unco-operative, pissed off or all of the above. I have no problem with people simply refusing to take part, with "I don't want to do it" - I would say no too - but there's really no reason to shout and swear in the process.

One surprising thing I've learnt is that people really don't like being disturbed on a Sunday. I guess because I worked shifts for so long and weekends meant nothing to me, plus the fact that shops etc open seven days a week now, I forget that some people still consider Sundays to be sacrosanct, whether on religious grounds or not. I've also discovered (though I'm unconvinced by the truthfulness of some of the claims) that "traditional" Sunday lunchtime now starts at about 11.30am and runs right through until about 4.30pm.

I'm in a bit of a quandary about the job though. I can really only hack about five hours at a time (except at weekends when the shifts are all six or eight hours), but that means I only work about a 26-hour week. Given the stupidly low hourly rate (even on the bonus rate when you beat the target number of completed calls), that really doesn't give me an income I can live on. The upside of the job is the flexibility of being able to choose your own shifts on a weekly basis, and I can't deny that not having to start work until 4 or 5pm is quite nice! What I could really do with is a nice little part-time job on three full days a week, which I could mix with the obligatory three shifts at the call centre.

It looked like it might get a little more interesting when I was asked to coach some of the poorer performers regarding the quality side of the calls. I've only been there eight weeks, but I'm currently ranked number 2 in the whole centre, and my quality feedback is at 100%. After the coaching, there's potentially some mini-training that they might want me to run, along with a couple of other members of the phone staff. They're trying to get away from all training being done by supervisors as they believe, probably rightly, that people generally accept advice and coaching better from their peers - people who are actually also on the phones day in, day out. However, as with most other things there, the coaching wasn't very well organised and the actual potential training hasn't even been devised yet, nor have any days or times been chosen for it. The people I was speaking to wanted to know the details before they signed up to their refresher training (as it was all voluntary). Suffice to say, that little diversion actually isn't going to make me inclined to stick at the job any longer than I was already going to.

So the hunt continues for something else/additional, reasonably flexible but more interesting. At least the latter shouldn't be too hard!

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Sunny and Share!

Little trip continued....

8am on the Monday morning saw me heading off on my little solo adventure. I'd randomly picked Whitchurch in Staffs for my first stop, and very pretty it turned out to be. It was a real mix of medieval and modern with an imposing church which, unusually these days, was open. As I'd arrived so early there was really nothing else to do so I had a little wander round in there - very cool stained glass windows and a small brass plaque in the floor which was catching the morning sun through the coloured glass beautifully. I've always enjoyed being alone in any building and, atheist though I am, churches always provide at least a very peaceful atmosphere. I had the place to myself for a good half an hour. As I left, my attempt to get into the wooden choir stalls was thwarted by the locked door at the top of the old stone staircase - one of those where years of footsteps have worn a smooth curve in each stair.

I emerged into the still-early sunshine and, spotting my reflection in a car window, decided I couldn't put off a haircut any longer (needless to say, that's not all I thought when I caught sight of myself, but the hair was the only immediately fixable thing!) The very first hairdressers I found on the High Street were able to offer me an appointment immediately so half an hour (and a very predictable "Been anywhere nice on holiday/Looking forward to Xmas? conversation) later, out I came with, as usual, the exact same haircut, just 2 inches shorter!

I found a little café which enticed me in with the offer of veggie sausage sandwiches for breakfast. It was a friendly place where everyone (except me) seemed to know everyone else by name. My steaming hot pot of Earl Grey came pretty quickly but I'd practically finished it when I heard a voice from the back say "Oh no, the veggie sausage girl!" I quite reasonably assumed they were talking about me, not least because the other customers were a couple of ambulancemen, a builder, two ancient pink-rinsed women and a guy with one leg. A rather harried-looking waitress then rushed to my side and said "SO sorry, we totally forgot - have another pot of tea on the house". Admittedly, I'd rather have had the sandwich for free but what the hell, swimming in Earl Grey tea wasn't a total disaster. At least once the sandwich came, it was worth the wait!

Duly sated, I surprised myself by successfully finding where I'd parked the car and hit the road, this time heading for Ironbridge, which Dade had said was worth a look. Again, a cute little place, straddling the banks of, um, a river. I'm sure I should know which one! I parked and went in search of the source of such metallic fame. I wandered across a small, unimposing bridge, looking up and down the river to see if I could see THE bridge - only when I reached the other side did I discover that I'd just been walking across it! As with so many other things in life, it was a lot smaller than I expected! I took random photos of it from the towpath, had a short wander along the banks and treated myself to a quarter of Everton Mints from one of those over-priced Olde Worlde Sweetie Shoppes.

Since it was still only lunchtime, I decided to head towards Telford but, on the way, see if I could find The Wrekin, a hill Dade had mentioned just a few times! The Sat Nav was no help but I very soon found a tiny white sign towards it. The roads got narrower and narrower, the hedges higher, the corners more twisty and at one point I swear I was actually driving on a cycle path. Now although this is my idea of driving heaven, my rally driving temptation was thwarted by the very real possibility of meeting something coming the other way. Just before I was about to give up any hope of actually finding it, there I suddenly was at the little car park for The Wrekin. With the promise of "spectacular views from the summit" I commenced the ascent. There were very few other people around but the ones I did see were decked out in hiking boots and walking canes, and looked rather fit. I climbed and climbed but I had to admit defeat before the top when most of my body gave out! I discovered on the way down that it was steeper than I'd realised on the way up so I reached the bottom rather faster than expected thanks to slippery gravel, ill-advised shoes and, of course, my poor single Achilles/calf muscle!

Photos of the weekend can be found HERE

Bored with my own company, I headed to Dade's place. I'm sure I heard Sid's little car gulp at the mountain of stuff it was going to be crammed with for the journey south the next morning though, given the strong winds that were forecast, I actually thought the extra weight might help glue the poor little thing to the road! We randomly passed the evening with chat, online TV and a HUGE Chinese takeaway. A perfectly good way to spend Dade's last evening there, before embarking on his own little adventure as my new flatmate and his independent photography career in Brighton. But of course that's for another blog...

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

You know what? It's not grim oop North!

Yes, it's been ages since I've blogged! No, I don't have an excuse!

I'm going to sneak an announcement in here so that I don't have to do a whole separate blog about it - my plans to return to Spain are all on hold. I'm not going back in January. There are a lot of reasons, which I won't go into here, but the upshot is I'm staying put for the time being. So that's that done - on to the proper blog post.

Having the loan of a car again thanks to Cathy and Sid's little jaunt to the Orient, I finally managed to organise a few days away. I'd been meaning to get together with Hannah for ages - I met her in Spain in February 2008 and we'd then become really good mates in Madrid. She came back to the UK in October 2009 and we hadn't seen each other since. So the delights of the M25 and M40 delivered me (thanks to Cathy's Sat Nav and Sid's dinky little Citroen) to Madeley, to a little village in Staffordshire where Hannah's boyfriend's parents have a house that they built from scratch 30 years ago while they lived in a caravan in the garden with a newborn baby (Steve!)

Hannah and I spent the afternoon trying to find the ruins of a local manor house but, despite having fairly clear instructions, all we found was a muddy path, horses, a fallen tree for me to trip over and a fence which was inexplicably completely inoffensive when I grabbed it, but remarkably electrified when Hannah stuck her hand on it 10 minutes later. After a yummy dinner, the three of us struck out in the pitch dark to the local pub (local = a mile away). We'd planned to get there cross-country but having discovered quite how muddy it was, that looked like a bad idea. Instead, we walked on the pavement-less, streetlight-less road under an amazingly starry sky. I relied on night vision, Steve had a great, retro, heavy 80s torch which gave off about as much light as a glow worm, and Hannah attached her wind-up torch to her head. Between us, we managed to fend off the onslaught of oncoming traffic and made it in one piece to the pub. We duly took over the pool table (no mention will be made of the results) and the quiz machine, and sampled their finest brews. Soon it was time to take our lives in our hands and return to the house via the same dark road which had now turned into the equivalent of Brands Hatch due to the number of people now leaving the pub (why they didn't have the sense to walk there, I don't know!)

Sunday dawned and Hannah and I decided to get out from under Steve's feet by heading to a local car boot sale. Hannah invested in a pair of rather startled-looking wooden cats and two candlesticks for her fireplace. I bought fake Rolos and a packet of fig rolls (am I the only person that thinks they're the most nostalgic biscuits in the world?) Having deposited the cats at Hannah's place, we went to an Arts and Crafts Centre based at a farm - so twee that Hannah had never managed to drag Steve to it. Giving in to the hunger brought on by the car boot sale, I dived into a very tasty bowl of pumpkin and apple soup (it was Hallowe'en after all). We wandered round the farm part, oohed and aahed over tiny chicks, huge pigs, cute ponies and slightly smelly goats. Hannah cooed over the shop's Christmas decorations. I commented on the fact that it was "still bloody October!" We headed back to the house, took the dog on rather muddy walk then drove across town in a proper workman's white van to collect a table and chairs Hannah had bought for their conservatory. The area we picked it up from was clearly going for Hallowe'en in a big way - most of the houses were decked out with glowing pumpkins, cobwebs, skeletons and were expecting a deluge of scarily-clad children (and probably adults). Having delivered the furniture to its new home, we headed back for a scrumptious roast dinner before Steve went off for an evening's table tennis. That left Hannah and me to drink our way through the evening, generally putting the world to rights and catching up with nearly a year's random chat. An early night beckoned as they both had to get up for work the next morning and obviously I had to leave when they did.

It was a very chilled weekend in a lovely part of the country and it was definitely worth the wait to catch up with Hannah.

Enough? Thought so! The rest of the trip is for the next blog...

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Back to the land of the employed

Finally, I have a job!!! I've been back in the UK for just over two months, and I just realised that this is the longest I've gone without working since I was 18.

When I first returned, I had no reason to look for a job. I was only meant to be back for a few weeks to sort out the flat, and then head back to Madrid. But that was not to be, as most of you already know. So having made the decision to stay in the UK until the end of the year, I had to face the fact that money really doesn't grow on trees and I'd actually have to earn some!

The obvious answer, as many people said, would have been to cut short my career break and go back to Gatwick for a few months. However, there were a few issues with that idea:

1) If I'd gone back until December and then tried to recommence my career break, I'm quite sure they'd have said no and I'd have had to resign there and then.

2) Having been away for over a year, it's very unlikely that I'd have been able to go back to my previous office, leaving the possibility that I'd have to go back to the main airport terminal, doing the frontline job that I've not done since 2002. I'd be facing refresher training and then the prospect of working at an office which I already know has zero staff satisfaction and with a small number of people I swore I would never work with (again).

3) Transport - when I had a car, getting to and from Gatwick was easy. On public transport, I'd be faced with heading out of the flat some days around 5.45am for the walk to the station, then the delights of the train trip to the airport to be ready to start by 7am.

4) The bottom line - it would be a backward step. When I walked out of that office in February 2009, I was determined I would never go back. Realising I'd been in the Civil Service for just under 20 years was what made me go to Spain in the first place. The only reason I'm on a career break is just in case one day I get so utterly, seriously desperate for a job that I might actually bring myself to go back, briefly or otherwise. That day most certainly has not come, nor do I want it to.

So - job-hunting began in earnest at the end of July when I decided for sure I was staying put for a few months. Having never really done anything apart from the Civil Service (before the English teaching, of course) I really didn't know what on earth to look for, let alone what I was good at. I've never had to write a CV before so that was a learning curve (thanks go to Ange for her advice). I was quite sure that immigration had given me no transferable skills whatsoever, unless I wanted to go into another law-enforcement type job. However, the more I thought about it, and as various people pointed out, I'd basically spent 20 years doing a variety of administrative and customer service roles, and had at least had the chance to show I was fairly flexible (not bendy!) and up for a challenge with some of the things that job entailed.

I had a CV, now I needed a job to apply for. I'd registered with every temp agency I could think of and given a fairly wide list of criteria, yet three weeks later, I'd heard from none of them! I know there's a recession but I couldn't believe that not a single one of them had found one job that suited my stated preferences. In the last week, one of them has started to send me emails listing jobs I "may" be interested in. Bear in mind that what I asked them to look out for were jobs in secretarial/admin/typing/data entry/filing within 3 miles of Brighton. An email from them last week offered me: Weighbridge Operator, Small Dole; Quantity Surveyor, Guildford; Finnish speaking salesperson, Edinburgh! Call me fussy, but what on earth made them think I would/could do any of those?!

Next ports of call were the Friday-Ad, Evening Argus and Gumtree websites (yes, the one where I found the slightly bizarre naked admin assistant job!) There's a bewildering array of jobs out there, it appears, several of which I fired off my CV to, without getting so much as an acknowledgement, let alone an interview. Then finally, I heard back from one - a telephone market research job (no sales, which was very important to me). Last Tuesday, I had a face-to-face interview and had to do a 10-minute test call (which admittedly seemed to only prove that I could read from a pre-prepared script on screen and click the mouse a few times!), then the next morning they called to offer me the job.

No, it's not the most exciting job in the world, nor the best paid but it's a job, it's pretty flexible (choose your own shifts each week, and no weekday shift starts before 2pm!) and they offer temporary, short-term or long-term contracts. Training starts on Wednesday for two days, then work proper next week. My bank manager will be delighted!

Sunday, 29 August 2010

The amusing downside of job hunting

In my recent search for work, I've come across some interesting ads, especially on sites like Gumtree and the Friday-Ad, where ads are free.

Today was the best yet, however! On Gumtree, I found the following:

"Hello there

Im a self employed businessman looking for help. I work from home and I need a PA for general easy admin jobs, cleaning jobs, booking flights, hotels etc. Some travel will be required but only if it fits in with you.

Full time hours offered, part time too if needed. Great rates of pay, easy going environment. £80 an hour, no mistake.

Please reply for more info

Yes, you read that right - £80 an hour. Being a cynical, suspicious kind, all sorts of things ran through my head - cover story for drug runner? Prostitution? Money laundering? Still, never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I thought "What the hell" and fired off an email for more info.

Within minutes, I had my reply, as follows:


Before you read on I must stress to you that this is a very genuine job offer.

Im looking for a female to work with me at my place just as they would do normally but in underwear and in the nude while I work from home. The work is simple admin, bit of cleaning, general easy going jobs.

All above board, NO contact or touching, im just rich and bored and want to try something different. Will pay you daily in cash. £80 an hour. Sometimes you can come away with me when I do business and be my PA, il pay £100 an hour for that aswell as all expenses covered.

I'm looking for all kinds of females, different shapes and sizes, ages 18-50. This will be a very discreet agreement. I also must stress that this is an agreement between us both and no photos or filming will ever take place.

Please reply if interested with a recent pic and add me on MSN via this address.

Thanks for the interest.

Bloody hell! OK, so I was already suspicious but I can't say I expected quite that (despite one friend's suggestion - before I got the reply - that the guy might have a "uniform" he wanted me to wear! Good call!) My initial reaction was righteous indignation, shortly followed by tummy-ache inducing laughter, then bafflement, then the temptation to report the ad to Gumtree as inappropriate. I guess the ad itself wasn't exactly inappropriate, but it was certainly misleading (apart from the rate of pay, of course!) These rich, bored guys really exist?! Well, at least one of them does and he lives in Brighton. But really - how bored would he have to be to want me parading round the house naked?! And how desperate would I have to be for work?!

I start Monday.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

My plans they are a-changing

I may have to make "over-optimistic" my middle name. When I headed back to the UK at the beginning of July, I sincerely believed that 6 or 7 weeks would be enough to sort out my flat (my life?), rent it out and head back to Madrid.

When I got back to my flat, I realised that I may have been wearing rose-tinted nostalgia glasses. My poor flat revealed itself in all its shabbiness. I'd been away 16 months, with only a couple of brief trips back, both of which were filled with stuff that didn't really allow me to stand back and take a good look at my (or rather the mortgage company's) little piece of Brighton.

This time was different. Andy, and his belongings, were gone, leaving me to see the somewhat dilapidated truth. My flat was tired, a little sad looking and full of, well, tat!

A visit from a local rental agent brought it home with a bang. He seemed optimistic that I'd be able to rent it out pretty quickly provided a few things were dealt with. And then began the list:

New living room carpet (yes, I can't disagree with him there)
Replace cracked sash window panes (at least he didn't suggest replacing the entire windows and sash mechanisms)
Fire door to the kitchen (to comply with Health and Safety regulations)
Decent Chubb lock to my front door.
Replacement locks on all windows (not essential but certainly recommended)

On top of that, I'd already discovered that these days, in order to rent a property out and eliminate the risk of being sued by a tenant, landlords have to have certain checks done:

Gas safety certificate for boiler and gas hob (£35)
Energy efficiency certificate (£32)
Electrical safety certificate - check of all sockets and any electrical items to be left in the flat (£150!!)

All soft furnishings have to have the label showing that they're fire retardant still attached. Sofa - check. Mattress - yup. Futon mattress - nope. Throw cushions - a couple, yes, the rest, no. Plus the various bits of painting that I already knew I needed to do.

By the time I'd found all this out, there was only about five weeks left til my supposed return to Madrid and I was faced with this daunting list and not enough time or money to do it.

Cue slight panic followed by total rethink! In order to do everything necessary to the flat, I need money. Having pretty much gone through all the cash I brought back from Spain (which amounted to a paltry £400), the proceeds of two car boot sales and even spent (in advance) my payments for some CDs/DVDs that I've sent off to a company that buys them, as well as some audio typing work I've done, I don't have anywhere near enough to cover the costs of sorting the flat out.

So I had to bite the bullet and accept that I'll have to hang on here long enough to get a job, earn enough to do the work on the flat, and have enough to cover rent/deposit in Madrid.

The upshot is - I'm staying right here until early January. Being more inclined to boil my head in oil than return to the Civil Service (despite only being on a career break), I'm now job hunting. I've registered with temp agencies and am scanning Gumtree, the Friday-Ad and anywhere else I can think of for four months' earning potential. If anyone knows of a job going in central Brighton, let me know!!

Saturday, 31 July 2010

The things people want!

While I've been sorting out my flat, I've been trying to get myself some karma points by Freecycling some things. In the process, I've been trawling through the Brighton and Hove Freecycle sites, looking at the "Wanted" ads, to see if I can help out. I've got rid of a few bits but I've been constantly entertained by the weird and wondeful things some people actually look for on there, or their reasons for wanting them. For example:

Super King Size bed: Due to bad backs and too many pets we are looking of a super king size bed and mattress. (I'm still trying to work out that reasoning!)

Women Clothing: Any size 20 good. clean women clothing. (May want to work on the punctuation there)

Shelves, Car Seatbelts and a Chest of Drawers (OK, 1 and 3 I can understand, but 2?)

Ironing Desk (er yes, what the hell is that?)

Cement mixer (ah, now I'm sure I've got one lying around somewhere)

Archery equipment (damn, another hobby that didn't pan out, eh?)

Chicken poo (I really don't know what to say)

Bidet (this one was an offer - wonder how long it'll take them to find someone who wants something other people have washed their arse in!)

Piano - in tune or not as we only want it for photos (not sure if they want to put photos on it, or take photos of it!)

The one that made me laugh the most:

OFFER: 2 Freeview boxes: Two with remotes on offer. The Grundig works. The Humax is about 2 years old and I can't work it as I am a girl.

PS - Yay, I just noticed this is my 100th blog.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Isn't sport meant to be good for you?

My attempt to get at least some exercise while I'm back in the UK, and to get back into much-missed racquet sports, got off to a reasonably good start on Friday evening.

Cathy had told me about a casual, drop-in tennis club so I thought I'd give that a try. As a warm-up, I decided to walk to the club - 40 minutes, mostly uphill. So I was knackered when I got there! They were very welcoming and I was thrown on court immediately as there were actually only two of us there at the advertised start time. I knocked up for half an hour with Richard, who I think was quite gentle with me as I told him I hadn't played for almost 18 months! More people turned up and we started the doubles matches. We were randomly paired up over the next two hours, I played with or against almost everyone there. Won our first match 6-2, then lost 3-6 and 4-6. Could have been a lot worse! It's a very sociable club so at the end I spent half an hour in the clubhouse with a much-needed beer before embarking on the long walk home. Other than my usual "wet rag" impression, and having a face the colour of someone who's about to have a heart attack, I didn't feel too bad. Then it all caught up with me. On Saturday and Sunday, everything ached! My calf muscles felt like someone was sticking knives in them and my shoulders were making alarming grinding noises. Still, I felt better for actually having done something!

By Monday, I'd just about stopped aching - so I went to a local badminton club! Again, they were a nice bunch though I think their website statement that they're mixed ability might have been a bit misleading. Some of them were VERY good! Still, I was pleased to find that despite not having played for 18 months, I could still actually play. All was going well - won the first match 21-15 then, like at the tennis, the groups mixed up. In the next match I spun/dived for an evil backhand smash from our opponents and felt (and heard) a rather nasty tearing sound from my right knee. OUCH! (Won the bloody point though!) Not wanting to wuss out, I carried on as the game was nearly over anyway and two points later it was over - we lost - and I hobbled off to see what the damage was. I was a bit concerned when I found that it hurt to bend it, straighten it or turn it! One of the others gave me some ibuprofen rub for it so I sat out for a game then decided there was only one way to find out if I should worry about it a bit more. So I played one more game (which we lost) - it stood up (no pun intended) to the challenge reasonably well, though I couldn't run backwards on it and I was very reluctant to twist. It seemed like a bad idea to risk it any further so, with 40 minutes still to go, I made my excuses and left.

This may be too much information but ... it was bloody hot in the hall so yet again, I could have wrung out everything I was wearing (clearly my DNA missed the class about "women don't sweat"!). However, I hadn't planned on using the changing room showers so I had no towel. Oh well, I thought! After my quick (cold) shower - gotta love private girls' schools - I attempted to dry off using my soggy sports gear! Memories of my school changing rooms came flooding back as I realised that it's actually impossible to get dry in them, towel or not. And to add a final insult to (actual) injury, I discovered that whilst I'd remembered to pack a change of clothes, I'd forgotten one rather vital item. To put it bluntly, I had to go commando for the walk home!!!

Anyway, my right knee just about survived the walk home although by the time I got into the flat, it was complaining, and I also found a strange dent in my left hamstring!

So - exercise. Good or bad for you? You decide.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Back in Brighton

Soooooooooo, I'm back in Brighton for the summer! It's been an interesting couple of weeks so far. There's so much to do in the flat before I head back to Madrid that I think my head's going to explode! I've got To Do lists galore and they're going VERY slowly. OK, scratch that. I'M going very slowly!

No excuses. I've just been very guilty of faffing about on the net, Facebook and watching trashy TV. There's just so much to do that I don't really know where to start.

I have to sort through basically everything I own, decide what's to keep (and store somewhere), what's going to the car boot sale next weekend, what I can recycle/charity shop etc. In nearly 10 years at this flat I've accumulated way too much stuff and I'm not that good at being brutal when getting rid of things.

But - in the last couple of days I've made some headway finally. I've organised a meeting with a letting agent, and have details of another. I've arranged to have the smashed mirrored wardrobe door replaced (a mirror I smashed over 8 years ago!). I've contacted my stepsister to pick her brains about renting the place out in case there are alternatives to paying the extortionate fees for an agent.

I've been lucky enough to be loaned a car three times since I got back (thanks to Cathy and Sid) so I've been able to zoom about between the flat and the storage lock-up where some of my stuff is. I'll be borrowing car(s) again for most of August so I should be able to get out and about to see people who live in other parts of the country, when I'm not clearing, cleaning and doing odd bits of DIY (probably very odd bit, knowing me).

The one thing I haven't even started on is trying to find a foster/adoptive home for the cat. Mainly because I can't actually imagine putting her in the catbox and taking her to live somewhere else. It's HEARTBREAKING!

I've caught up with Cathy, Sid, Andy, my mum, my dad and stepmum, been to two terribly quaint fetes, played tennis, stuffed my face with Oregano's pizza, come second in a pub quiz, and finally got to hear Dani perform live!

In an attempt to at least do something about my increasing jiggly bits, I've been trying to walk every day (not terribly successfully!), tonight I'm taking the plunge and going to a drop-in tennis night at a local club to embarrass myself with a group of total strangers, then on Monday I'm going to a local badminton club. Let's hope it turns out a little better than the last proper club I went to, about 12 years ago. After a few weeks, I was given a rather clear choice: stop playing like a bloke or find a different club!!! Basically, it was one of those clubs where the women wore velour tracksuits, never broke a sweat, touched up their makeup during the evening, and barely hit the shuttlecock hard enough to clear the net. Me? Run around like a demon, smash wherever possible, play to win. Apparently not "ladylike"!!! Needless to say, I accepted their kind offer and left! Fortunately, since then I've always been able to play with/against people who actually want to play! Hopefully Monday night will be good. I'm looking forward to it. But let's get the tennis night out the way first. I'm hoping they'll forgive the fact that my back issues mean I'm not able (or allowed) to serve properly.

So - if anyone a) wants to adopt/foster a very beautiful, very furry, slightly neurotic housecat, please let me know and b) would like to bombard me with messages to motivate me into getting stuff done, please do!

(Comments on the actual blogsite please!)

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Latest visits (another long blog, sorry!)

I was honoured with the presence of no less than four good friends in my last couple of months in Madrid - Cathy, Julia and Mike, and Sid. I hadn't seen any of them since at least last Christmas so it was lovely to catch up with them in my adopted hometown.

First was Cathy for four days. We had a lovely time just wandering around, with lots of food (previous blog shows just how much food!)

Then at the end of May, Julia and Mike came for a belated anniversary trip. They were staying in the centre of town so we met up a few times, went to the Retiro, El Capricho, ate at the very lovely Isla del Tesoro (still my favourite veggie restaurant) and generally just "did" Madrid! It was nice to be a tourist again even if I did also have to demonstrate that living somewhere doesn't necessarily mean you know where you're going! It was great to see them and I think (I hope!) they had fun! Annoyingly, I managed to forget to take my camera out even once, so I'm hoping Julia uploads her photos sometime soon (hint, hint!)

At the very end of June, it was Sid's turn. It didn't get off to the best start as she flew in on the same day I (semi-unexpectedly) had to move out of my flat and into a hostal, and on the third day of the chaotic Metro strike! She finally joined me at the hostal at 1.15am Wednesday night (well, Thursday morning). On Thursday, once I'd picked up my final pay of the summer, we hit the Retiro for the afternoon. Ice-cream, laughing at the rowers on the lake and sunning ourselves passed a couple of hours. We walked back to the hostal via a quick exhibition at La Caixa Forum, and La Mallorquina for afternoon tea then spent a relaxed evening in the nearby square with Julie and Natalee.

On Friday, after a brekkie at the hostal of knobby bread and cheese, we headed out to a couple of photography exhibitions (PhotoEspana 10). We wandered back to the hostal to pack for the weekend in Alcoy (for Kim,'s 50th birthday party) and then off to the airport (on the way we got on the Cercanias going the wrong way and had to jump off at the very last second, trapping poor Sid's arm in the door and causing a spectacular swelling and bruise! Sorry Sid!) Our flight was delayed a bit but we finally made it to Alicante and found our welcome committee (Kim, her son Matt, his girlfriend Silvia and Kim's friend Silvia 2). Kim's lovely friend Silvia very kindly drove us to Alcoy, Kim,'s hometown, about 45 mins inland from Alicante, dropped us off at the Savoy (yeah, OK, not the famous one!) where we changed and hit the main square to meet the others. We'd bumped into Geraldine at the door of the hotel so the three of us went to meet Alex and Marta, who had flown in from New York and Zaragoza), then were soon joined by Kim, her niece Lisa (in from Australia!), Matt and Silvia, Fay and Stuart (Kim's friends from Devon) and Jay, who we discovered was going to be the DJ at the party on Saturday night. Alcoy was much more buzzy than I'd expected and at 1am we walked to the weird and wonderful Gaudi Bar (not the name, but it's based on various Gaudi designs of houses in Barcelona). Kim got us all drinking some strange cocktail with lemon and coffee liqueur but we finally gave up the ghost at 3am and crashed.

Having discovered that the hotel dining room doesn't open at weekends, we went back to the main square for Saturday morning breakfast - tasty and cheap hot chocolate and croissants. The rest of the group were heading into the mountains for a huge slap-up lunch but Sid and I had promised ourselves a day at the beach so we went off on the 90-minute bus journey to Alicante. At first glance, the beach looked a bit like one of those "Yuk" pictures of classic Spanish tourist beaches - absolutely packed, with sunbeds lined up like rows of sardines in a tin. We were surprised to find that the majority of the people were Spanish though. We found ourselves a small patch of sand and settled in. It was damn hot so after a few minutes it was time for my first dip in the sea since September 2008! Sid wussed out, only making it in up to her knees before deciding it was too cold, but I'd been looking forward to this for months, so in I plunged for a lovely long refreshing swim. A couple of hours of sunbathing and a bite to eat, and it was time to head back to Alcoy for the party!

Having initially gone to the wrong address (not our fault!) we eventually found the party, being held at Kim's school. The party coincided with the quarter final of the World Cup, with Spain playing Paraguay, so the first couple of hours were a little quiet, with the majority of the guests inside watching the TV, but after that the party got into full swing. There was stacks of alcohol, a huge table of cold foods and then no less than 3 barbecues! Great mix of people, Spaniards and Anglos so there was plenty of chatting and laughter. Kim certainly seemed to be having a good time! But as all good things do, it came to an end and we weaved our way back to the hotel.

On Sunday, we all headed to Kim's, helped clear up the party stuff at the school, then went for a slap-up Italian meal with far too much wine, and then (at Kim's insistence!), 2 bottles of champagne. We finally had to leave when we realised the restaurant had actually closed, so we went back to Kim's just in time for me to see the final 4 points of the Wimbledon final (yay, Nadal won!), more wine before Matt kindly drove 4 of us to the airport. Great weekend!

For the next two days, Sid and I walked, ate and drank our way around Madrid. More sunbathing was required, as were a couple more photography exhibitions. Tuesday evening was my last night in Madrid so an evening in El Buscon was the predictable result. Joined by Louise, Jorge, Philip, Sian and Richi, we had a fun time. Jorge had brought his VERY expensive guitar along for me to play with. Fortunately, the music in the bar was loud enough to drown out my picking and warbling but I was certainly impressed with the guitar. Now he just needs to learn to play it!

Before we knew it, Wednesday arrived and after one final morning sunning ourselves on the rather steep slope of grass under the suicide bridge (!) we had to face the packing! I was convinced there was no way it was all going to fit in but finally, after a lot of sitting on suitcases, it was all in and we made the trip to the airport on the Metro. Dragging all that luggage in 36 degrees was interesting! I'm very grateful for the fact that the Easyjet staff at Madrid are a bit more relaxed than they are at Gatwick - luggage allowance each was 20kg. My case weighed 23kg and Sid's (which mostly contained my stuff!) was 24.5kg! Ouch. At €16 per kilo excess luggage, my heart (and my credit card) skipped a beat, but the check-in guy didn't bat an eyelid and we waved goodbye to our cases.

And that was that! We finally took off and my first full year and a bit in Madrid was over - 7 weeks in the UK to come!

So thanks to all my visitors for entertaining me over my last couple of months there.

Pics of Sid's trip and a few of the party are HERE

Monday, 12 July 2010

Things wot I learnt in Spain

In my first year and a bit in Spain, I've learnt a lot. Admittedly, I've probably forgotten a lot of it, but here's a list of some of the weird/wonderful/bizarre/pointless things I've picked up. Feel free to add to them in the Comments section if, like me, you've been lucky enough to live in Spain for a bit.

1) Guys christened José are frequently called Pepe. It took a while to find out why but I finally discovered that it comes from the fact that José is the Spanish version of Joseph. Joseph was, allegedly, the father of Jesus. "Alleged father" in Spanish is "padre putativo", which begins which 2 Ps. P, in Spanish, is pronounced like "Pay", so put 2 Ps together and you get "Pay-pay" or Pepe!

2) In Spain, you start with 12 points on your driving licence. If you do something wrong, you have points taken away, until you reach zero, and then you're banned.

3) The north coast of Spain has a climate very similar to that in the UK.

4) Pretty much all Spanish (women's) shoes have high heels, even the sandals.

5) In Spain, jamon (ham) in not considered to be meat.

6) The festival of Corpus Christi, despite being a clearly religious celebration, last year in Toledo consisted solely of a military parade lasting about 2 minutes, for which rather a lot of people lined up for a good 3 or 4 hours.

7) Whether they're 2 people or 10 people, the Spanish will somehow find a way to block the entire pavement, making it impossible to get past without risking life and limb by stepping into the road.

8) I can buy Heinz Baked Beans in the local supermarket, but buying a half-decent potato for baking to go with them is much more difficult.

9) Re number 8 - cheddar cheese is purchasable, at vast cost!

10) Carrots are so hard I've broken 2 vegetable knives cutting them, but potatoes are so soft you almost don't need to cook them!

11) Una caña - a standard draft beer, can range in size from a thimble to about 1/3 of a litre, depending on where you order it. And "un doble" doesn't appear to be "double" anything!

12) The sidreria near Sol, off C/del Carmen, makes fantastic sangria, containing six or seven different alcohols, then a tiny splash of lemonade.

13) The famous statue in Sol, which has recently been moved back to its original location, is either a bear and a cherry tree or a bear and a strawberry tree, depending on the source of your information. "El Oso y el Madroño" translates to both online, though Madroño appears to be "arbutus" which should be "strawberry tree".

14) When you fill in your annual tax return in Spain, you can note a tick-box to show that you want a small percentage of your taxes to be donated to either NGOs (unspecified) or to the Catholic Church, or to neither (so it all goes to the government). Every Spaniard I've asked so far has said they choose either NGOs or no-one.

15) The word for Sir is "señor", for Madam it's "señora", for Miss it's "señorita". However, for Master, you might expect "señorito". No. Señorito is apparently a somewhat disparaging old term for a rich man who owned a lot of land.

16) Mosquitoes don't necessarily wait until summer to start munching.

17) "No two without three" - the translation of a Spanish saying, suggesting that if something happens twice, it is likely to happen a third time. It's not quite the same as our "bad things come in threes" because it refers to all events, good or bad.

18) Felix Rodriguez de la Fuente - Spain's equivalent of David Attenborough. Also known as El Hombre de la Tierra (Man of the Earth). He made lots of nature programs in the 1970s but in the early 80s was killed in a helicopter crash while working.

19) A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that I had the brownest forearms of anyone on the Metro! A rare occurrence.

20) Every single day of the year is a Saint's Day, sometimes more than one saint.

21) The 25th of May is Saint Emma's Day!

22) Public holidays can be moved to a more convenient day if the actual day falls on a Sunday, though they don't have to be moved at all. One of my students said they're like the "jokers" in a pack of cards, or the "wild card".

23) Most people I speak to here can't believe that we don't have ID cards in the UK, nor can they understand the opposition to them. They're surprised that we don't have a single document that we're legally obliged to carry round with us to prove our ID in case we're stopped by the police. I guess since the new government scrapped them, it'll be a shorter answer from me when I'm asked about them.

24) It may be expensive electricity-wise, but when I come back, I'm getting a flat with air conditioning!

25) Giving English classes in cafés doesn't really work. I tried it a couple of times but the noise is too much and the students are usually rather self-conscious. While sitting in a café on my own I watched a guy give a class across the room and it clearly wasn't successful. I won't be doing it again.

26) I still can't get used to the Spanish newspapers referring to the queen as "Reina Isabel II". The first time I saw it I thought, "How funny, they got her name wrong", forgetting that all names in the public eye are translated to the Spanish version. Isabel = Elizabeth. Weird. 

27) Metro strikes are a real pain! Legally, the Metro staff are obliged to offer a 50% service even during industrial action, but at the end of last month, they called a 2-day all-out strike. Chaos!

28) Staying up drinking/partying all night, then going for brekkie and heading home about 10am is pretty normal. Not for me. Too damn old for that!

29) South facing balconies are the best!

30) You really can't get halloumi!!!!

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Well, that was fun...

What an utterly bizarre cock-up of an afternoon!

Disappointingly, after only one set of Nadal's first round match at Wimbledon, I had to leave to go to teach. Off I went into the blazing sun, onto the AC-free Metro, off the Metro one stop before my student's class because the line is shut. Walked for 20 minutes to her building, pressed the buzzer, waited, waited a bit longer, buzzed again. Finally, a voice said "Si?" "It's Emma" I said, cheerfully. Silence. "Oh. I. Um. I. Er..." Entryphone went dead, leaving me standing in the street burning my bonce! Then my mobile rang. It was my student, who said "I thought I told you I had to cancel class today". And yes, she had. Last week. When I didn't have my diary with me, so when I got home last week, I wrote it in the wrong week and showed next week's class as cancelled. Crap! Oh well, head home to catch maybe the end of the Nadal match, I thought.

Over to the bus stop with me for the nice, quiet, air-conditioned number 21 which comes every 6 or 7 minutes. Or not. 20 minutes later, it finally turned up. On I got, and plonked myself at the back for the short ride. At the next stop, I thought maybe I'd entered some kind of alternative dimension. Waiting at the stop, for my bus, was a huge group of pensioners along with their, um, supervisors? Helpers? Guards? Whatever! There were 55 of them (yes, I counted) - 45 excited (drunk?) and very chatty "people of the third age" and 10 nuns! On they piled, taking as long to get on as my entire journey should have taken. It was hot and loud and very squashed. When I could see my stop coming up, I rang the bell and struggled valiantly to get out of my seat and to the exit. To absolutely no avail. There was no getting past this sea of age and wisdom. The bus stopped for about 2 seconds then drove off again.

I managed to escape the bus hell at the next stop which turned out to be much closer to Metro Alonso Martinez, than to Bilbao where I'd wanted to get off. Fine. I'll get the Metro there, change lines and get home!

So I descended the 4 escalators to the steaming depths of Line 10 where another AC-free Metro whisked me to Plaza de Castilla where just one more change would have me in sight of the flat. Or not. Again. This time, an inexplicable problem (OK, that should be incomprehensible cos I didn't understand half the tannoy announcement) meant no Line 1. So back up to the roasting hot street with me to walk home.

By now, it was nearly 2 hours since I'd left the flat, I hadn't taught, hadn't earnt any money and I was hot, tired and fed up. With one result - a HUGE bag of fries from the nearest fast food place (something I haven't done in many, many years!)

Yes, no-one but myself to blame for screwing up the date of the cancellation but even so, sense of humour failure was threatening.

Friday, 28 May 2010

I thought I was the teacher....

...but I learnt a lesson this evening!

I've been teaching here for over a year now and, until recently, had, by choice, stuck with adult students. However, 3 weeks ago one of my students asked me to teach her 8-year-old son (who shall remain nameless, despite the many names I feel like calling him, none of which are the one he was christened!) She told me that he hates English classes at school and she wanted someone to make English fun for him (I resisted the temptation to tell her that, generally, I also hate something - children!) She told me that since I seem so bubbly and friendly (which, considering I teach her at 8am, was a surprising opinion) she thought I would be ideal. Maybe I was swayed by the compliment, maybe I just thought it was about time I gave it a try. Whatever the reason, I said yes, and 3 Fridays ago I started classes at 6.15 on a Friday evening with him.

Week 1 went pretty well, I thought. He showed me what he'd been doing at school, we went over a few basic verbs, some vocabulary, played shopping games with my newly purchased plastic vegetables and some fake money, and the hour flew by.

Week 2 was a little more difficult - in my bag of "toys" was a small, soft football which he found very early on. We played with it, throwing it to each other, with him shouting out the next number in a sequence, or giving me the next letter in the alphabet. More games with the plastic veg and some animal flashcards seemed to go down well, and 3 days later, his mum told me that he was very happy and that he'd said I was "muy simpatico"! So far so good.

Tonight was our 3rd class. I was actually pretty geared up for it though I won't go so far as to say I was looking forward to it. It's my last class of the week, but I was determined not to let that affect it. However, he's a kid. It's his "end of the week" feeling too. He gets home from school at 6pm, probably looking forward to his weekend. But no, he has English class. Tonight was a trial - for both of us. When I arrived, he got out his box full of foreign money to show me. I guess he thought I was just going to look at it, be impressed, then do whatever he wanted. Oh no! I was determined, so we divided it up into the different currencies, I explained the difference between coins and notes, then we starting listing how much money he had in each different currency. Good practice for: numbers, names of countries, and the verb "I have got....." Great for about 20 minutes, then he lost it completely. He threw the money back in the box and told me, in no uncertain terms, that he didn't want to study, or work, or speak English. He only wanted to play with the football. I tried everything - "How about 5 minutes study, then 5 minutes football?" I said, hopefully. "No." "5 minutes football, then 5 minutes study?" "No." Whatever I said, he said no. Then he sat in his chair, turned his back on me and sulked. I felt like doing the same.

"Aha", I thought, "everyone tells me that silly songs and stuff work with kids". So out came the felt-tip pens, a picture of a rainbow and my best rendition of "Red and yellow and pink and green, orange and purple and blue..." etc. Cue him nicking my coloured pens, scribbling pictures of something inexplicable all over the sheets of paper, and refusing to join in with the song. Then he put my pens back in their box and tried to put them in his school bag. I retrieved them. While I was doing so, he dived into my bag of props and pinched the packet of stickers that he's only supposed to get when he's done well. I got those back from him, after a tug-of-war with them! I can't remember what prompted it, but at one point I actually found myself saying "Am I going to have to go and get your father?" That worked for a bit and he concentrated, vaguely. For the last 5 minutes, we were back to the "throw the ball, say the next number...." game. And finally it was over.

I have never felt less in control in my life! I have no idea what to do with him, say to him or how to deal with him at all.

This is why I didn't want to teach kids in the first place. 4 more classes with him til I finish for the summer. The question is, do I agree to continue with him in September? I don't like giving up on things - I'm just stubborn like that. But there are some things that I'm just pretty sure I'm not cut out for, and teaching kids is (and always was) one of them.

Friday, 21 May 2010

If anyone finds my brain, please post it back to me

It's been one of those weeks. My mind has been somewhere else all week - or rather, it's been in various different places. Unfortunately, those places have rarely coincided with the location of my body.

So far this week, I have:

- missed my stop on the Metro. Twice.

- got on the Circular (Madrid's equivalent of the Circle Line) going the wrong way.

- gone to pay money into the cashpoint machine without taking my card.

- gone to a lesson with the lesson plan for a different student

- completely lost a bright yellow tea-towel! It's nowhere to be found (though I'm blaming the workmen who were on the balcony on Monday for a very bizarre theft)

I dread to think what's next! There are clearly too many things floating about in my head at the moment.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Pet pets

I was thinking about the prospect of having to rehome my beautiful cat :-(  and it got me thinking about the various animals that have shared my life over the years. I hadn't realised quite how many there had been, but here's a little potted history:

1) When we first moved to Brighton when I was about 3, we got 2 guinea pigs called (for reasons that are lost in the mists of time) Telephone and Fred Egg (yes, Fred, not Fried!) I don't really remember much about them other than the smell of sawdust in the cage. There was also a tortoise in the back garden when we moved in, if I remember rightly, which had been left there by the previous occupants. I have absolutely no idea what happened to that!

2) Next came our first cat, Sparky, when I was about 7. My aunt was working at a vet's surgery and Sparky was brought in with a dislocated back hip. For some reason, I think the owner didn't want him back, or couldn't pay for surgery, or something, so my aunt rang my mum and asked if there was any chance we'd like a cat. Oh yes, we would! So shortly afterwards, a rather startled black and white cat joined the household. When we got him, his back leg was still healing and he wasn't meant to climb so we had to take him out in the back garden on a little lead. He was a temperamental little sod, prone to hiding under my parents' bed, where I would lie down on the floor and try to coax him out, usually receiving a swift swipe for my efforts (the scar from one of which can still faintly be seen between my eyebrows). He had a great fight with a starling once and, needless to say, the starling won - by getting into an overturned dustbin in the back yard and fighting Sparky off with fiercely flapping wings and a very sharp beak. I think he learnt his lesson. I remember him out in the back garden in deep snow once, doing that gorgeous thing cats do where they pick their paws up really high over the top of the snow, before plunging them down again and looking completely baffled! He stayed with us for about 10 years until sadly he had to be put down one day. I still can't think about the day I came home from college and found he was gone without a tear or two.

3) Next, when I was about 10, came the mice! The school mouse had had babies and the teacher was looking for people to take them home. Being the rebellious little brat that I was, I told the teacher that my parents had said it was fine and I sauntered off home with 2 of them in a shoe-box. I came very close to having to take them back to school but I won out in the end and Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent (guess what was on TV at the time) moved into the spare room where their frantic wheel-spinning wouldn't keep everyone awake! All was well until the day we all left the house, unaware of the fact that Sparky had slunk into the spare room and was now shut in there with them. When my mum came home from work she found mouse massacre! Sparky had pulled the cage off the table, it had flown open and Ford Prefect was very dead. Arthur Dent had miraculously survived but not for long. I think he pined away within a couple of weeks.

4) When my mum and I moved into her new place when I was 18, we adopted a ridiculously cute black kitten from a very strange mad cat woman in a flat above a taxi despatcher's office (strange the things you remember). She must have had about 20 cats in there and needless to say I wanted to take them all home, but sanity prevailed and the tiny ball of black fluff joined the household. We took a while coming up with a name for this one, but my (then) boyfriend and I were reading a fantasy trilogy at the time, so the poor little thing got saddled with Tasselhoff Burrfoot (Tass for short). Tass was the sole witness to a burglary at the house and I recall being absolutely terrified when I heard that we'd been burgled, that they might have hurt the cat. Fortunately, no! When the boyfriend and I bought a place of our own 6 years later, Tass came with us. He was king of the castle, until.....

7) ......we did what couples who don't want to have a kid do - we got a dog! Smudger was a fruit-the-loop crazy whippet/                  cross, who we rescued from the National Canine Defence League. He was absolutely gorgeous, very bouncy and liked nothing better than jumping up on the kitchen worktops, once knocking an entire dinner service onto the floor in the process. I think it was that that gave us a clue that he'd been mistreated because when we went into the kitchen having heard the noise, he was cowering in a corner. I went over to him and reached my arm up to turn on the light, but when my arm raised, he shrunk back even further and whimpered as if he was expecting to be hit. With hindsight, he really wasn't best suited to our lifestyle. We were out at work from 7.30 every morning, til about 6 at night, which left him home alone and, being not much more than a year old, he was very boisterous and bored easily. We had to put locks on the outside of all the doors so during the day he could only get into the kitchen and the hallways. Not that that stopped him causing chaos. He managed to get hold of a bottle of black shoe-polish once, sank his teeth into it and then carried it round the house shaking his head from side to side. When we got in from work, there was black polish everywhere! All over the beige carpets, up the cream walls, you name it! We couldn't help but laugh. When the relationship ended and I moved out, things became unworkable and my ex rang me one day to say that he was going to have to take Smudger back to the rescue centre, and wanted me to go too. I swear I have never felt so bad in my life as I did on the drive over there, with Smudger in the back of the car, no doubt thinking he was going for an exciting walk. Taking him back into the reception area, explaining the situation, signing the paperwork and leaving him there was one of the hardest things I've ever done. But I'm quite certain that the rescue people will have found him a new home very quickly, with people who were home during the day and give him the attention he deserved.

8 - 13) In 1997, while I was sharing a flat with Sid, we decided that the place was missing something! Sid really wanted house rabbits but that plan just didn't work out. So we went off to Foal Farm, a rescue centre near Biggin Hill, and found ourselves in the "rodent caravan" where a volunteer lived 24/7 with dozens of mice, rats, gerbils etc. I may have got this lot in the wrong order, but over the next 3 years we had: a hamster called Feck (again with the TV show theme!) who, as hamsters do, succumbed about 2 years later and was buried on our allotment; a gerbil whose name totally escapes me (I'm sure Sid will remember); and 4 rats called Lewis, Kellerman, Pembleton and Bayliss (yes, characters from Homicide: Life on the Street, our favourite show at the time). The rats were a revelation! Incredibly intelligent, they learnt their names, were capable of tricks though we never taught them any as that seemed a bit exploitative. We let them out of their cage as often as possible and they happily had the run of the flat, though their favourite position was sitting on our shoulders with their whiskers tickling our ears and their very strong tails curled round our necks. A few of our friends remained unconvinced and we had to put them out of sight when some people visited! My overriding memory of all those rodents is when Feck managed to escape once. About 3 days went by and we just couldn't catch the little git though at night he would come out of wherever he was hiding and eat the food we left out for him. We found a potential trick for catching him on the internet, so one night we laid a trail of tin foil on the hall carpet, with a stash of food near the door to our bedrooms. The idea was that his little claws would be heard on the tinfoil alerting us to his presence. At about 3am, we heard the telltale noise and we emerged from our respective bedrooms, clutching a sieve each. There he was, on the tin foil, looking damn annoyed that he appeared to have been rumbled and, like American football players diving for a touchdown, Sid and I descended on him, trapping him under one of the sieves. Hah! Gotcha! He was very unimpressed at going back in his cage but he never escaped again.

14) And now to the present day. Having been in my flat for 5 years, in 2005 I was really missing the company of a pet so I started the long and it appeared fruitless, search for a housecat. My flat in Brighton is right on a main road and doesn't have a garden so I needed a cat that would be happy living indoors. I didn't want to adopt a cat that had previously been used to going out so I need to find one that actually needed to be kept in. Finally, the lovely guy at City Cat Shelter told me he thought he had the perfect candidate. I went to his house where he had a rescue facility in the back garden, and was introduced to a sorry-looking mass of chocolate and white long fur. Missy (as she was then called) had been abandoned on his front doorstep with a note that said the owner was moving to a new property where she wasn't allowed to have cats. It gave little information other than the name, the fact that she was about 3 years old and had been bought from a pedigree breeder. However, it turned out that she had some medical problems which the breeder hadn't mentioned (what a surprise) so in all likelihood the owner probably just didn't want her any more. She'd caught cat flu and had been at the vet's for the last 2 weeks with a high probability that she wouldn't survive. She had various areas of fur missing where she'd been on IV drips and antibiotics, and she generally looked pathetic. She was terrified of other cats and just hid at the back of her little cage. On my first visit, she wouldn't let me pick her up so I sat on the floor of the shed and just talked to her. I was smitten, but was advised to go back again a week later for another go, to make sure I hadn't changed my mind. This time, she was looking better and I even got a brief cuddle. My mind was made up and a week later, the guy from the rescue centre brought her to the flat. He told me that one of her medical conditions was a strange weakness in her spine that meant her back legs didn't work properly, that she would be a "floor cat" as she couldn't jump and she might randomly fall over. Imagine his surprise when, half an hour later while he was still there chatting, she hopped up onto the sofa next to me, curled up in a huge ball of fluff and fell asleep. I didn't really like the name Missy, but as with a lot of rescue animals, the only thing she had was her name and I didn't want to change it too much. Given the state of her when I first met her, I decided that Messy was very appropriate. As she's technically a pedigree (she's a cross ragdoll/chocolate point), and pedigree animals always seem to have those ridiculous names on their pedigree certificates, I also unofficially named her "Mesopotamia Disco Ball von Fire Station (don't ask), but she is only known as Messy, thankfully! She is, without a doubt, the most gorgeous, lovable, perfect cat in the world (I'm not biased, really!) and it was a real wrench leaving her when I moved to Spain. At least I knew I was leaving her in good hands with my (now) ex, and all my friends coming round to feed/play with her when he's away, for which I thank them all profusely. But - things change, my ex is moving out and I need to rent my flat out privately so I can come back to Madrid for another year. I'm pretty sure I'm not going to be able to rent the flat out with a resident cat, and to be honest, I wouldn't want to leave her there with someone I don't know. So the time has come (or it will, in about August) to find a new home for her. Ideally, I want her to go to someone I know, or at least someone one of my friends knows (and I will be demanding access rights!) So if anyone knows a likely candidate for her new owner, please let me know. She has to stay indoors all the time (absolutely imperative due to her non-existent immune system) and she can't mix with other cats in case she catches something. Another bout of flu or anything similar could kill her! But other than that, she is perfect (or should that be purr-fect?)

So there you have it - my life history as seen through my pets.