Tuesday, 3 May 2016

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover

The Magus
by John Fowles

narrated by Nicholas Boulton
"Nicholas Urfe goes to a Greek island to teach at a private school and becomes enmeshed in curious happenings at the home of a mysterious Greek recluse, Maurice Conchis."
This is a weird book. I have been picking 'classic' audiobooks at random, then reading the blurb about the book followed by some of the things that people have said about it, usually on Audible and Amazon and Goodreads websites. If it looks as though it's worth it, I'll download and listen. Many people cited this one as their favourite book ever, lifechanging, that sort of thing. It's a long, long book (more than 26 hours in its audio version) and now I've finished it I still don't see the point. The main character is tormented in a 1950's version of The Truman Show where nothing is real, all is staged, and despite being perfectly at liberty to walk away he keeps coming back for more. I can believe that falling in love keeps him involved for a certain amount of time, but when that particularly folly ends he still doesn't leave them to it and get on with is own life. The story isn't even concluded particularly well either, and that really made the whole ordeal even more annoying. I must get back to the Galsworthy and I'll be much happier.

[Later - I've been thinking about what I wrote above, and I've changed my mind. Nowadays I like books when there's a rattling good story that has a beginning, a middle and an end that satisfies all my questions. I also like books when they are a bit challenging and make me think, but the story seems to be the most important factor for me at the moment. It wasn't always this way, and this book exemplifies the sort of thing I might have been looking for twenty or thirty years ago, because it isn't trying too hard with the story, there's much more to it about the world and our beliefs and our place and who we think we are and how we see everything that isn't our self. What if we couldn't trust anything we saw or were told? If we were just seeing shadows on the cave wall and thinking this was reality? I can see how this book would feed that thought experiment, and could have made an impression on the twenty-year-old me. I just don't want to bother with that sort of effort any more.]


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And The Mountains Echoed
by Khaled Hosseini
"It's a funny thing... but people mostly have it backward. They think they live by what they want. But really, what guides them is what they're afraid of. What they don't want."
I liked this book a lot, so much in fact that I'd like to read it again, mostly so that I appreciate the links between different sections of the story. There is a thread running through all sections and they are sometimes connected in ways that are not obvious. The heart of all the stories is Afghanistan, and we are taken from 1959 to the present day, but not sequentially. I never stopped wanting to know what happens next, where will these people end up, will they be happy?


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Paul Temple Intervenes
by Francis Durbridge
"In a small country lane, the well-known American, Myron Harwood, is found dead. The murder heralds the start of a spate of celebrity deaths – and each time the victim is found with a small white piece of cardboard, bearing the inscription ‘The Marquis’."
The second of three I picked up from a book swap box, and just as bad as the first. I used to think they were quite good on the radio, but I've been listening to the radio version as well recently and the problem is too many characters and such convoluted plots that the outcome is not only implausible but disappointing. I'm sure I'll still read the third anyway because it's so easy, and sometimes easy reading is what's needed.


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The King of Torts
by John Grisham
"As he digs into the background of his client, Clay stumbles on a conspiracy too horrible to believe. He suddenly finds himself in the middle of a complex case against one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world and looking at the kind of enormous settlement that would totally change his life."
This book is terrible. I've read John Grisham before and I seem to remember it was OK, but this one was just boring. The lawyer makes a fortune and loses a fortune and that's the end of the book. People on the whole are mean and greedy (with a few exceptions) and anyway the world of US class actions isn't one that I particularly want to know about. I should have been able to tell from the title.


Image of the book cover

The Wind in the Willows
by Kenneth Grahame

narrated by B. J. Harrison
"When Mole goes boating with the Water Rat instead of spring-cleaning, he discovers a new world. As well as the river and the Wild Wood, there is Toad's craze for fast travel which leads him and his friends on a whirl of trains, barges, gipsy caravans and motor cars, and even into battle."
It occurs to me that I've been listening to 'The Classic Tales' podcast for some time now, and the guy's narration has improved no end. He still makes the odd mistake but nowhere near as often, and he made a good job of this book. Obviously I've read it before but there are bits I'd forgotten, although most of the forgotten bits are somewhat odd. For example, the chapter called 'The Piper at the Gates of Dawn' (when Rat and Mole find Otter's son Portly at the feet of the god Pan) is beautifully lyrical and evocative and has supplied the name of quite a good Pink Floyd album, but in terms of story and plot the chapter is wholly unnecessary.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Leicester

Tree-lined pedestrian pathway

This was a Lola II birthday weekend, postponed from when her birthday actually took place because we have both been a bit busy most weekends. By all rights it should therefore have been warmer than late February, but it wasn't really. Apart from the chilly days it was a brilliant weekend.

We started with the accommodation on Friday, which was not our usual guesthouse or B&B, but a private residence booked through AirBnB, belonging to Muriel. Muriel was Not Very Well so our contact with her was quite limited, but we were out most of the time so it didn't matter. She has some very interesting wallpaper but the room was comfortable and there was Redbush tea.

We decided that Leicester is quite good. Many of its inhabitants have got over the discovery of the skeleton of King Richard III in favour of their football team (although the city still displays an RIII logo on lamp posts, posters and anything else it can think of). Leicester City Football Club has unexpectedly emerged from obscurity and is almost in a position to win the League, and everyone seems to be rather excited and nervous about it.

On Friday we ate at a rather meat-focused restaurant, but on the way home we passed a small Japanese restaurant that looked very promising, so that was Saturday's dinner venue sorted.

Lola I in pretend shop with trolley and list
On Saturday we decided to head for the Tourist Information Office, but were waylaid by some loitering market researchers. I persuaded Lola II that it might be interesting, and so it was - rather than answering a few questions off a clipboard in the street we were taken into an office and answered rather a lot of questions about shampoo, toothpaste and cereal. Then we had to pretend to shop for shampoo in a pretend shop with a real trolley while being filmed, and lastly answer a trillion questions about three types of shampoo, many of which were stupid. Did the pictures of shampoo make me think that it was 'efficient'? or 'natural'? or 'smell good'? Stupidest of all given that there was no information about price, did it look like 'value for money'? Good luck to them analysing my answers. They gave us each a £5 Boots voucher so I suppose it wasn't three quarters of an hour completely wasted (they'd said it would be 15 minutes).

Lola I trying to eat an eclair

Leicester Market is good and there was a 'Continental' market going on too with some wonderful-looking cheeses. We found a deli for lunch and I had an eclair from the Boulangerie stall which showered me with icing sugar and anointed me with cream. Then we made our way to the Jewry Wall Museum and a guided tour of the Roman baths. This was less interesting than I'd hoped because once you've seen a few Roman baths what more is there to say? And there wasn't actually much to see except the foundations, not even a trace of hypocaust, but there was a very large Roman wall. It was pretty cold and the guide clearly knew a lot but spent many words conveying minimal information. Kathleen Kenyon was the original archaeologist who worked on the site in one of her very earliest jobs, so that was a bit interesting. Being told how the original residents would have welcomed the warmth of a Roman bath house made us reflect that we would too.

Tomb of Richard III with Lola II
After that we sat in a cafe drinking tea until we'd warmed up, then had a look around the cathedral, where Richard III was re-interred about a year ago. His tomb is rather impressive and there was a guide hanging around whom we quizzed for some time. She doesn't think the king was all that bad, and her view is that he was slandered by poets and playwrights; times were different and politics was pretty ruthless back then. She had attended the re-interment and was responsible for the bit of the church where Benedict Cumberbatch, Julian Fellowes and Robert Lindsay were seated.

Leaving the cathedral we made our way to where we remembered the Japanese restaurant was, but there it wasn't. Eventually with the help of Google we found it elsewhere in quite a different spot from where we remembered. It was also a little disappointing, as the rice was formed into nigiri by a machine and rather small pieces of pre-sliced fish out of the fridge simply placed on top. Several of the dishes were better than the sushi, but there was quite a lot of confusion with the order and Lola II's chicken was undercooked (they took that off the bill).

Sushi, agedashi tofu, edamame, gyoza
The evening's entertainment was provided by a performance of 'Legally Blonde' the musical, which went very well. There was a small incident with a bar of chocolate - when I went to get some water I though how hilarious Lola II would find it to hide some chocolate that was in my bag, so I moved it to a less obvious place and then completely forgot that I'd done it. When I came back and looked for the chocolate I was halfway through accusing Lola II of hilariously hiding it when I remembered what I'd done. We both thought that was very funny indeed.

Last notable event of Saturday - we ordered a minicab by phone to take us back after the performance, and the driver phoned to say he was waiting in a silver Zafira car. What are the chance of two identical silver Zafira cars waiting in front of the theatre? The man waiting for his wife was very nice about it, and we didn't actually get into his car...

Half timbered house
Sunday started with another visit to the market Boulangerie (chocolate twist and pain au raisin this time). We had a bit of time to spare before our next booked event, so we walked along a pretty road converted for pedestrian use and found the Art Gallery, but it wasn't yet open. The tours we'd booked were of the Magazine Gateway (gateway to a monastical complex not the city, and which in more recent times housed arms) and Wygston's House (15th century half-timbered with Georgian and Victorian extensions about to be sold off and converted into a restaurant due to lack of public funds for restoration). The guide for these two tours was much better, even though it was still very cold to be standing around in unheated buildings.

Several curries, rice, naan, chapattiLeicester is famed for its Golden Mile - a bit like Rusholme in Manchester, it holds a concentration of Indian restaurants, and we chose one that was busy on the basis that it was likely to be good. It was delicious and very good value. There was just enough time for a quick look in one of the rooms of the Art Gallery that was now open before Lola II had to catch her train.

Leicester - I'd go back for the curries, but not for the sushi. And good luck with the football.

Lola II and the chaat

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Lola Towers Renovation Project

Two runners rounding the bend from the road into the park
Lead runners entering Victoria Park, April 2016
It's all going quite well. Handyman Ilf has turned out to be quite a find. I have been told rather a lot about his misspent youth and past history along with some details of his current situation while he has run his hand disapprovingly over my damp walls, tutted at my leaking tap and dodgy door hinges, and frowned at the situation with the loft ladder. We have discussed where I might acquire door handles and light fittings and he has expressed the surprise I am accustomed to hearing at the idea of a woman who has trouble with shopping.

I came home from work to find that the door which has been falling off its hinges now opens and closes as if by magic. I even opened and closed it several times, like an imbecile, just for the joy of being able to do it. I could not have anticipated the pleasure of shutting a door that previously would not shut. I feel I have already said too much on this subject, but I am going to get up, go to the door and open and close it again. Now I will stop talking about the door, but in terms of the pleasure to cost ratio, this is looking like a pretty high number.

Ilf has also been working on the loft ladder, polyfilla'd a few holes, done a couple of small electrical jobs and fixed the outside tap. He has advised me against using the shower for a while so as to allow the room to dry out thoroughly, at which point we may be more successful at getting paint to stick on the ceiling. I await his invoice but unless he wants to be paid in unicorn tears there's very little that will stop me from insisting that he continues to minister to my every whim, at least in terms of DIY.

The shopping didn't go too badly either and I only had to go back two or three times to decide what I really wanted and just once to replace a thing. I have bought light fittings and door handles and made decisions on other aspects of the Project, and Ilf is planning to return next week for more. Meanwhile, Olf and his assistant have arrived to start on the garage.

At the weekend I managed to make the final push towards emptying the garage, right down to taking the oil-soaked pieces of carpet to the tip, along with four bin bags of assorted small rubbish and some bigger pieces. It is a surprisingly large space and I am faced with the real prospect of actually being able to put my car inside. Not yet, because the door is still not independently lockable - it relies on a couple of lockable shackles set into the concrete in front of the door. But soon.

While I was outside working on the garage clearance I had time to have some lovely conversations with neighbours, and I even went and watched the Regency Run, a local 10k race that goes pretty much past my front door. The weather was fine, as it is today for Olf and his assistant. Further henchmen have visited to measure up the garage windows and assess the state of the electrics. It will not be finished this week, but I am confident. Now I'm going to open and close that door again. Oooh, lovely.

Many runners in the park
Regency Run 2016, in Victoria Park

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Ski France and Home News

Covered wooden bridge and church with mountain slope behind
Moûtiers, April 2016
It's been a busy fortnight for me, so nothing unusual there. There was my second ski holiday of 2016, followed by a week containing (as well as work) one badminton club night, two badminton matches (we lost both) and an introduction to Buddhism and meditation. I'm behind with everything, not just this blog.

Before Easter I managed to finish the dress I've been making for sister D, and posted it off to her. That dress pattern has been very good value - three dresses made and possibly one more to come! I also managed to negotiate a 9% discount on a new ski jacket and trousers, which were still jolly expensive but fit perfectly, unlike my previous ski clothing which was low price/low quality and bought for a larger version of me.

The ski holiday was with friends who had arranged all transport and accommodation independently in order to maximise the time available for skiing. On a normal package you fly out and arrive in the resort on day 1, head back on day 8 and have six days skiing in between.  What we did was travel by train overnight to arrive in the resort and ski on day 1, and head back on day 8 after a morning's skiing. So eight days skiing in total.

The travelling wasn't bad - Eurostar to Paris, then local sleeper train to Moûtiers, then local bus to Méribel, and the same in reverse for the way back. We had some time to kill in Paris on the way out and in Moûtiers on the way back, so there was a tiny bit of French sightseeing as well. Ski conditions were variable - one gloriously sunny day, one day when everything shut down at lunchtime because of wind, one day when clouds were a bit low and visibility came and went quite suddenly, the other days a combination of sun, cloud, wind and rain. But we skied every day and it was fine.

I only fell over properly once, but unfortunately I did something nasty to my left shoulder which is still rather painful. If it had been my right shoulder I could have avoided playing in those two lost badminton matches - thankfully we are being demoted next season so maybe we'll manage to win a match or two next year.

The introduction to Buddhism and meditation was very interesting, and the first of four weekly sessions. Nothing revelatory to announce here yet, but I'll keep you posted because I think I'll have something to say by the end. At the weekend I journeyed south to help mum clear out some of the accumulated detritus of a lifetime, which is ultimately necessary but rather dispiriting, and which I am starting to regret slightly. Anyway, it's in a box not in the bin so there is time to retrieve the situation. Maybe my gay abandon has resulted from the clearing out of 15 years worth of accumulated detritus from the garage at Lola Towers in preparation for remedial work. Still not finished and more trips required to the tip.

The Lola Towers Renovation Project (LTRP) continues apace with yet another workman coming round to look at some small jobs - very small in comparison with the garage, but if completed then they will add materially to my personal happiness (at least as much as learning to meditate, if not more). The only down side is that about half of the small jobs need input from me in terms of locating and buying things. It's not enough to tell the workman that I want this or that light fitting replaced, I've actually got to choose what I want it replaced with. Not easy for a non-shopper like me.

The workman - let's follow a theme to its fullest extent and call him Ilf - seems like a nice chap, enthusiastic and very talkative, and he certainly describes himself as the kind of workman I want. He's actually coming back to get started tomorrow, so either he's very keen and sees the potential goldmine that the LTRP represents, or he's not very good and hasn't got any other work at the moment. We'll soon find out, and you will be among the first to know about it.

I have also reached the point where my expanding waistline can no longer be ignored, and I have designed and instituted a set of Diet Rules for the next 5 weeks. These are designed to disrupt the bad habits I have acquired and embed a new set of habits that I hope will become the new normal. You may imagine the type of situation I am trying to prevent if I let on that one of the rules is 'No more than 100g of dark chocolate a week'. I'm not prepared to reveal the level of weekly chocolate that previously prevailed.

Five skiers lined up (almost) ready to go

Sunday, 3 April 2016

New(ish) Type 2 guidelines

Long grass, thistles and fir trees
Harlow Carr, July 2015
On one of my recent days off I visited an old friend, which was so tremendously rejuvenating that I definitely didn't mind spending four hours in the car getting there and back. I can't explain how satisfying it feels to have in depth interesting conversations about anything and everything with someone who has known me for more than thirty years and is entirely on the same wavelength.

I use this blog partly for therapy, to sort out my thoughts and opinions by writing them down. I don't know why it's better than a private diary, but somehow it is. However, there are many issues that are unsuitable for public scrutiny, and simply cannot be included no matter how much I would like to wrestle them onto the screen. On that day I talked privately about many of these issues, and feel all the better for it. My friend is wise, and sensible, and I feel lucky to be able to tap into that wisdom and sense.

At the end of that day I attended another Diabetes Education Club evening - I can report that this time the buffet was loads better than the standard sandwiches and cold sausages. In terms of the meeting content, it was all about the finished NICE guideline about the treatment of Type 2 Diabetes. This took about a year to finalise because there was uproar when the first draft was published. I've had a look back through the blog and it doesn't look like I wrote about it at the time.

In primary care, most GPs are not diabetes specialists, so the guidelines published by NICE are intended to help these non-specialists choose the right way forward for the patient in front of them. These same guidelines are also supposed to inform patients of how their treatment should be managed, help organisations assess whether the care they provide to patients is of good quality, and also allow Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) to ensure they are getting value for money in the services they are responsible for. A tall order.

The problem was a difficult one. People with Type 2 Diabetes come in all shapes and sizes, the treatment options are very varied and the range is growing all the time. The guidelines are drawn up with strict parameters - they must be based on evidence, so if nobody has bothered to do a formal trial then no evidence exists. [There is a fairly famous paper highlighting this issue which describes the design of a formal trial to compare mortality when jumping from a plane with and without a parachute.] The guidelines must also take cost into account, so an expensive treatment would have to show significant benefit beyond that of a cheaper treatment.

The uproar at the draft was because a strong recommendation was made for a medication that had pretty much been sidelined by most medical practitioners. I can't comment on why this obsolete treatment was brought out of obscurity, but I imagine it was because sufficient evidence existed of its benefit, and it must be very cheap. To their credit NICE took account of the feedback, amended the draft, repeated the consultation process, and eventually published an amended version which seems to have better reflected consensus within the diabetes community.

The most amusing moment of the evening for me was when it was pointed out that the previous guideline had recommended low dose aspirin for lowering of cardiovascular risk in people with Type 2 Diabetes, but this recommendation had been reversed in the latest version. "What are we supposed to do," asked one doctor plaintively, "when patients ask why we told them to do one thing then and something different now?" "You should try being a Dietitian," I pointed out. "We have to do that all the time."

This led into a conversation about the latest dietary options. I have many of these conversations with Dietitians, so it was interesting to hear what  these GPs thought. One was very much in favour of Very Low Carbohydrate diets, while another favoured the Very Low Calorie option. Both of these are perfectly valid choices, but the Dietitian's skills lie in helping the individual to decide what is right for them. The relevant guidelines follow this kind of pathway:
1. The most effective lifestyle therapy in Type 2 Diabetes is weight loss
2. There is no evidence about the best way to lose weight and keep it off
3. So the best diet for a particular individual is the diet a) that works and b) is sustainable, whatever it consists of.

I was going to put in provisos about 'nutritionally complete' but for most people if the diet consists of nothing but cabbage soup or 100% marshmallows it will probably fail the 'sustainable' criterion. So yes, I will stand by 'whatever it is'.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Small goals

Vista of forest and hills beyond the ski slope
Borovets, February 2016
It is positively ages since I came back from skiing, and it feels as though I have been tired the whole time. Obviously I have been ill which often results in tiredness, but even though I do have days off I seem to have filled them full of things that need to be done and I could do with having a day when I actually have a rest. I tried last Sunday, but still felt I had to catch up with all the email that I had neglected for the whole week.

In terms of productivity I have achieved many very small goals. Some goals are very, very small, like buying a new iron, which for most people may take an hour or so, but because I have to make things complicated I first have to research online to see how much irons cost before applying for the right value of vouchers using the points amassed but not yet redeemed from my TV-watching days (and what do points mean?) Then I wait for the vouchers to arrive through the post, wait for the day when I can go to the shop, and loiter indecisively for far too long cursing the small domestic items market for having far too much choice. I eventually choose. I am amazed by how little such small domestic items cost. I have underspent my vouchers by £10.01 and am left with a spare £10 voucher and a gift card containing the grand sum of 1p. They couldn't even donate it to charity.

The gadget I ordered to allow me to transfer photos from my camera to my laptop arrived, so you get bonus skiing pictures in this post which is entirely unrelated to skiing. I am also having an argument with Amazon over an esoteric aspect of their business that is too tedious to relate here but means I cannot cancel an order that hasn't been delivered and cannot replace the undelivered item without incurring a cost greater than the value of the item.

Other small goals - I have indulged in the luxury of a professional cleaner for a one-off blitz of the dirtiest areas of Lola Towers, which I have to admit were as filthy as anything I have ever seen. I felt much more like a normal person when, for the first time in 15 years, I brushed my teeth in the bathroom upstairs rather than the shower room downstairs. A very small goal achieved. Life is sometimes peculiar and complicated and a bit sad.

My friend J posing with fog-shrouded ski slopes behind her
A less than sunny day in Borovets
Work news. As Dietitians working in Diabetes my team and I are often called upon to advise on weight management (which usually, but not always, means weight reduction). The quirks of NHS commissioning mean that in the setting where I work the eligible population is small and relatively unchanging, so I don't have enough people to maintain a group, and I had to disband my Very Low Carb Lifestyle group when I was getting no more than 2 people to turn up for a session. The population in the neighbouring city is larger and they have access to many more potential customers. A formal education programme is available to people diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes within a year of their diagnosis, but after that they only used to get one-to-one half-hour appointments with a Nurse or Dietitian.

I have been working with my colleagues to develop a course delivered for two hours a month for three or four months that can help fill this gap. It has been a difficult and frustrating experience, because none of us has much time outside of clinic commitments, and dates were set and patients invited to attend the course before a programme was developed. My colleagues are caring, intelligent and committed practitioners, but there was no way this was going to be a success, and unfortunately I had to sit in and watch the sessions unfold, and it was messy. So despite my best efforts to stay out of it, I ended up with the job of coming up with a sensible way forward.

The first thing I did was to try and establish what the overall aim or purpose of the course was - a simple statement in one or two sentences was what I was after. I discovered that there was a divergence of views even on this fundamental matter. After we'd settled this initial issue, I spent some hours working on the nitty gritty of learning outcomes, key messages and timings of sessions as well as the proposed content. I've squeezed everything into three sessions, but then I got roped in to help out and discovered that my timings are probably hopelessly unachievable. Meanwhile everyone who needs to discuss what I've proposed and come up with some sort of consensus has been on holiday. Including me.

It has certainly been a heartsink kind of project, and I'm no longer even sure that my own ideas are feasible. We're going to talk about it some more in a meeting coming up shortly, so my faith may be restored then.

Me on the ski slopes


Sunday, 13 March 2016

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover

The Bees
by Laline Paull

narrated by Orlagh Cassidy
"Born into the lowest class of her society, Flora 717 is a sanitation bee, only fit to clean her orchard hive. Living to accept, obey and serve, she is prepared to sacrifice everything for her beloved holy mother, the Queen."
One review I read called this "Watership Down with bees" and I have to agree. Despite rampant anthropomorphism, I hope that there is a grain of truth in some of the behaviours described - I should ask Bee Lady to have a read and let me know. I liked Watership Down and I like this, and another thing that raised it above the average was excellent narration.


Image of the book cover

In Xanadu: A Quest
by William Dalrymple
"While waiting for the results of his college exams, William Dalrymple decides to fill in his summer break with a trip. But the vacation he plans is no light-hearted student jaunt - he decides to retrace the epic journey of Marco Polo from Jerusalem to Xanadu, the ruined palace of Kubla Kahn, north of Peking."
I bought this in 1991, so the flyleaf tells me, partly because the author and I were at the same university at the same time and I'd seen his tagline on various university news publications. He did the journey before he'd graduated, and took a few years to write the book, and it doesn't do to draw comparisons between his skills and maturity as a twenty-something graduate and my own. I don't remember reading this the first time round, but it is quite a wonderful first book. Certainly makes me feel like an underachiever, anyway.


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Here on Earth
by Alice Hoffman
"March returns to her childhood home with her teenage daughter, Gwen, to attend the funeral of the housekeeper who brought her up. Unexpectedly, though, the visit rekindles in March a passion for an earlier unrequited love."
The story is loosely modelled on Wuthering Heights, and is similarly annoying and frustrating in that the lead characters are rather unlikeable. Catherine and Heathcliff may have been romantic soulmates, but they were pretty unattractive people, and so are the couple here. At least this one ends satisfactorily, if a bit suddenly.


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The Five People You Meet In Heaven
by Mitch Albom
"On his eighty-third birthday, Eddie, a lonely war veteran, dies in a tragic accident trying to save a little girl from a falling cart. He awakens in the afterlife, where he learns that heaven is not a lush Garden of Eden but a place where earthly life is explained to you by five people who were in it."
I read the whole of this on the aeroplane journey back from Bulgaria in between bouts of coughing and about an hour's sleep, and there was only one embarrassingly tearful moment. It's a bit moralistic but nicely written, although nowhere near the miraculous work of fiction that the hype declared, and which was what prompted me to read it.


Image of the book cover

Send for Paul Temple
by Francis Durbridge
"In the dead of night, a watchman is brutally attacked and with his dying breath cries out, “The Green Finger!” It is the latest in a series of robberies to take place that have left Scotland Yard mystified, and with no other choice but to call upon the expertise of Detective Paul Temple."
A very easy read which provided a little frisson of pleasure when Leamington Spa was featured (as the setting for a jewellery heist). My home town is described as 'a comparatively innocuous watering place' which 'still thinks of the day when Queen Victoria paid it a visit and it suddenly became 'Royal'.' Other than this unexpected bonus content, it's a straightforward whodunnit with a completely unbelievable plot that is far too complicated. Suspension of disbelief is definitely required.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Ski Bulgaria

Two small ponies awaiting riders
Borovets ski resort
My first ski holiday of 2016 - how lucky am I - has been in Borovets, Bulgaria. Not a destination I've visited before, in fact I had no idea where this former Eastern bloc country was located. Even after a week there I had done very little cultural tourism, and when I asked my companion J whether she could think of any significant Bulgarians, the best she could come up with was Uncle Bulgaria, the Womble. Not strictly a native Bulgarian, as we are pretty sure that a) he's from Wimbledon, and b) he isn't real.

Having looked at the map, I now know that Bulgaria's neighbours to the south are Greece and Turkey, west are Macedonia and Serbia, with Romania to the north and the Black Sea to the east. Our flights, unusually, were at the end of the day, so we were offered a short tour of Sofia on our last day, and were guided around some of the more significant churches in that city. Even the guide couldn't think of any Bulgarians we might have heard of, except a footballer who really doesn't count.

The journey to the resort was spoiled only by too much snow. The coach driver reached the resort, but then declared that he couldn't safely continue without fitting the snow chains. This took quite a long time, during which a faction in the coach comprising young lads who'd had a good deal too much to drink proceeded to offend the various parents of young children with their inappropriate language and behaviour, and were eventually asked to make their own way onwards by taxi to avoid any further scenes.

It took another hour for the coach to proceed at a snail's pace to the hotel, which would have taken about 20 minutes walk if I'd known the way. I travelled separately from my companion J who was flying from Gatwick rather than Birmingham, and there'd been quite a lengthy booking process to try and manage this non-standard arrangement. I'd been led to believe there were no twin rooms left so we might have to share a double, but on arrival we actually had a room each, which was an enormous bonus given the amount of time I spent in my room, coughing.

Day 1 - the snow from the night before had mostly melted, but there was still enough to be getting on with. The package pricing meant that after renting skis and boots and buying the lift pass, taking six days of lessons was effectively free, so despite both of us being fully able to ski competently, we were placed in a group with five others of a similar standard under the tutelage of Yav. Yav was much more interested in the progress of two young Dutch women than two middle-aged Brits, so we stuck with him for a couple of hours but then broke away to do our own thing, especially when the group settled down to have an enormous lunch. We didn't want much more than a sandwich for lunch, the ingredients of which we shamelessly stole from the hotel breakfast buffet.

The hotel was quite smart and included a swimming pool, sauna, steam room and 'relax zone'. I'm pretty sure that this was where I picked up the germ that is still bothering me, and caused me to ski really badly on day 2, and then spend the whole of day 3 in bed, alternately shivering and sweating. I know it was bad when I didn't feel like eating anything, despite that delicious hotel buffet.

Orange gondolas among the conifers

On day 4 I felt well enough to get back out on the slopes, but it was cold, windy, raining in the resort and snowing at the top of the mountain. J and I went right to the top in the gondola at the start of the day, but decided it wasn't going to be much fun and came back down again - me to return to bed, and J to do some investigation of the resort.

Days 5 and 6 were better - the weather was sunny with a very light dusting of snow on top of sheet ice. Skiing wasn't straightforward but at least we managed a few hours each day, followed by horse riding (J), shopping (me) and a pleasant forest walk (both). My shopping trip resulted in some mystery Bulgarian salami which has turned out to be absolutely delicious, several bars of Romanian chocolate, and a little ceramic tile decorated with a lizard, which makes me smile whenever I see it.

We met many different nationalities and heard some interesting stories, including from the portly English chap dressed as Superman who was part of a stag party. He told us that the groom was back in the hotel, having broken his hip falling over while out in the resort the previous night. Not to be beaten, another group who overheard this story told us that one of their number had broken his ankle falling out of his bunk bed in the hotel. This conversation all started when we were asked for some painkillers from a man who'd hurt his knee before his holiday even started when he went for some practice at a ski slope at home.

The two of us escaped unscathed apart from my ongoing cough, and my return trip was entirely uneventful, which is how I like it. Apart from not enough snow and my illness, it was a fine holiday, and on reflection I have to say the absolute highlight was the wonderful soup served in the hotel each evening (two different kinds every day), along with the menu of fifteen different flavours of hot chocolate. I only discovered the hot chocolate menu towards the end of the trip, and only managed to sample one - dark chocolate and coffee flavour - which was very fine indeed.

On a sunny terrace awaiting sustenance

Photo credits: in this post they're all J's pictures. My photos are trapped on my camera since my laptop stopped recognising the memory card. I have ordered a gadget that should allow me to transfer them, but it hasn't arrived yet. There are a couple of photos on my phone, but hey, I haven't got round to dealing with them yet. You'll probably get a random skiing photo in some future post.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Foot trouble

Thistle buds
Harrogate, July 2015
Written two weeks ago. I've been busy, and away - more about that soon, perhaps.

'Last weekend' was most productive on Saturday, when I managed to clear the last of the roses from the lawn and hack away enthusiastically at the bay, the pyracantha and the speckled leaved shrub whose name I forget. One more car-load of clippings to take to the tip, then all that remains is the wisteria and the ivy. It's been good and busy at Lola Towers.

On Sunday I made the trip south to mum and dad, where jobs awaiting me included PC configuration and fixing a new grab rail to the bathroom wall. I'm a bit out of practice with drilling but I dutifully packed the drill as well as my laptop. Things didn't go as planned because about half an hour after I arrived, mum did something to her foot which didn't go away when we ignored it and prevented her from weight-bearing at all.

We were advised by the non-emergency NHS 111 service to put some ice on it and take two paracetamol tablets before going to A&E. With the help of zimmer frames and wheeled office chairs mum made it to the car - the non-emergency ambulance was an option but we'd have to wait for a very long time - and off we went. After two hours the doctor saw her and sent her for an X-ray, but after waiting another hour and a half in a corridor she'd had enough, and asked me to come and collect her. The foot's OK, and we're not sure what happened, but all's well that ends well. I feel a little guilty about not attempting the drilling, but I don't think it would have been a high quality outcome.

At work our diabetes education group finished last Thursday with the most generous and complimentary feedback ever, and the group had even bought and signed a Thank You card for us. My new Diabetes Dietitian colleague was observing the course preparatory to delivering it herself, and I'm looking forward to being able to share this job. Unfortunately we're still a nurse short, so we're still very reliant on the one nurse who is able to deliver the course with us. There's a plan in place for trying to fill this gap, but I think it will take some time.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Sports Headband with built-in speakers

Domed gazebo with roses
Harrogate, July 2015
My mobile contract is with EE, and not long ago they notified all their customers about a free offer of a 'Power Bar'. This turned out to be about the size and heft of two of those large torch batteries, with two sockets on one end and a short cable. The idea is that you charge it up by connecting the cable between a USB port (e.g. computer) and one of the Power Bar sockets, and then if your mobile phone runs out of juice when you're out and about, you turn the cable round and charge the phone from the Power Bar. The other part of the offer was that if you were in town and your Power Bar wasn't charged up, you could take it into an EE shop and simply swap it for one that was. All for free. It seemed too good to be true.

So I went and got one, and even used it once, and then it wouldn't hold its charge any more. So I popped into an EE shop and tried to swap it for a new one, but they told me that the scheme was on hold because of a problem with overheating. True, the gadget did get very hot when it was working. They expected to be able to re-start the scheme once the problem had been fixed.

It clearly wasn't fixable, because the next thing was that the Power Bars were being recalled, and what's more they were prepared to give us all a £20 credit to spend on EE accessories online if we brought our Power Bars back to the shop and handed them in. So that's what I did next, not knowing what I would do with the £20. Back home I browsed the online shop, and was thinking about getting a better cover for my phone when I saw the Sports Headband with built-in speakers for your mobile device. And then I saw a Sports Headband with wireless bluetooth capability as well as built-in speakers for your mobile device, so I could listen to music on my phone while it's in my pocket rather than trailing a wire through my clothing.

I dithered somewhat about which option to go for before deciding on the wireless bluetooth one, and only after I'd placed the order did I remember that my iPod doesn't have bluetooth, so I'd only be able to listen to media via my phone, which has only a fraction of the music and books that are on my iPod. Never mind, it's only for my running a couple of times a week, although because of all the badminton I haven't done any running for a while.

On Tuesday I spent a hour at the Snowdome to remind myself how to ski. It was the perfect opportunity to road test the headband, and it worked a treat - except for the fact that the Snowdome wireless connection wasn't reliable enough to stream music from the Internet so I had to rely on either my downloaded tracks or use some of my data package. But it was still good, and the skiing went very well too. When I got home I managed to buy travel insurance and some Bulgarian currency, so now I'm all set and looking forward to the forthcoming ski trip.

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