Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Stitched up again

Readers may remember a post in early January in which I described surgery on a pair of sandals, to convert them from this (when bought new last September)...

...to this...

...so that I could wear them thus, immediately after the toe op on 8th January...

The time had now come to return these sandals to their original state, the toe dressing nowadays being unbulky. So I pulled out the lengths of narrow black ribbon, and (by hand, of course) stitched the two halves of the front strap together again. And then to disguise the join, I sewed some wider black ribbon over it, creating a snazzy black stripe.

This is the result. It'll do, although the sunlight cruelly reveals how amateurish my hand-sewing is - so no clicking on these pictures to take a close-up look!

So now I have nearly-new sandals that I can wear outside, without passers-by convulsing with mirth. And being grey, they will go with many things that I wear. I don't claim that the black stripe is an improvement on the original design, but I'm sure it will pass muster.

Unusually in my experience, these particular sandals are fairly comfortable on my feet, and I do want to use them this summer, and not just while resting up post-op at home.

Friday, 23 February 2018

Like my Mum?

The lack of posts reflects the stark fact that I'm not able to get out much at the moment. Oh, I do local things - that has never stopped - but my longer-distance outings have been few, and consequently the number of stimulating places visited has been few as well. Not so many outings, not so many posts. 

Why? The toe of course. Its healing is so slow. I will admit that, on the whole, the toe is now showing increased signs of recovery from its early-January surgery, but I am not yet convinced that something isn't holding it back. And yet, for instance, it doesn't look infected (and I have some recent definite assurance on that). But the longer this drags on, the more I feel inclined to get the toe checked over yet again. I chafe at this present inactivity. I'm not a very patient person!

And besides, I do so want to spend long afternoons - or even whole days - visiting spots, taking pictures, and getting some fresh air in abundance. Especially as the first signs of Spring are here, with sunshine to enjoy, even if it does remain cold outside. But that cannot yet be. The toe will tolerate confinement inside a boot or shoe only for a couple of hours, even when driving: after that, it feels uncomfortable. Walking about for any distance, or over rough ground, is also uncomfortable. I stumbled in a country churchyard the other day. Ouch!

So I spend a lot of time at home with my feet up, doing whatever you can do when sitting around.

I have recently been comparing myself to Mum, as she was at my age.

When she was sixty-five and coming up to sixty-six (as I am) it was 1987, and Mum and Dad were living in a quite-new house at Liphook in Hampshire. Here it is, in 1993, much as it ever was.

I was still working in 1987, of course, and could see them only on weekends. Still, the Sunday Lunch with Mum and Dad was a regular thing, an institution, and it always seemed to be sunny at Liphook. I generally went with W--- at this time, and after the ritual lunch we would wander around the village, or go for a stroll in Radford Park opposite, an area of historic meadowland and old mill races, with lots of restful running water. Mum was no rambler, but had been keen on extended casual strolling all her life, had no aches and pains, and in her mid-sixties was still good for some seriously long walks.

She was could be pretty mumsy too. Here she is, holding my niece Jenny (then a toddler, now a grown-up mum) in April 1987:

And this is Mum (left) with my auntie Peg (right) in the same month:

Eighties fashions? No, a hangover from the seventies and earlier. Mum was never a fashion diva. 

In June and July 1987 my parents were in Pembrokeshire (where I wanted to go to in April this year, but had to forego). Here's Dad, Mum and Peg on the sands at Broad Haven:

And here's Mum at Tenby, looking a little more stylish:

None of the above shots were mine: I wasn't present. They were Dad's pictures, or Peg's.

Five years on, in the early 1990s, after W--- and I had separated, I would go down and see my parents on my own. Mum was by then seventy or so, but the extra years had not slowed her down much, although, loyally, she walked at Dad's limping pace. Arthritis was getting to him, and in 1993 he would have a double knee-replacement operation.

I remember Mum and I taking a particularly long and strenuous walk in the Devil's Punch Bowl at Hindhead. That very occasion was notable for her quizzing me on my long-term plans, now that I was separated and looking at a divorce. I remember choosing my words with great care, as you always had to with Mum. She was inclined to pass a well-meant but scathing comment on everything, and many a cherished idea or plan had been unnecessarily pooh-poohed by her in the past. It was a fault that worked to her disadvantage, because in self-defence I'd be secretive with her, as a way of avoiding any argument, for I couldn't win. I often wondered if she guessed that I was keeping some things from her.

And it had a bad effect on me too. Over the years, I gradually developed the habit of being secretive about most things with most people, not just her. This must have led to a situation where I'd subconsciously thrust odd or difficult notions from my mind, to stop myself dwelling uselessly on them. Uselessly, because I couldn't bring them out and discuss them with anybody - and by doing that, possibly see a way to make them real. A form of blindness, I now think.

Here are Mum and Dad in 1993 on the beach at Oxwich, on the Gower. This time, it's one of my photos. They had me along - bribed with a free autumn holiday all at their expense. Although I did really enjoy their company most of the time, and Dad's car was very nice to drive!

But you can sense how united they were, and what a forthright and formidable couple they made - and how hard it might be for me to stand up to them.

How do I stack up, now that I'm more-or-less at the stage of life they had then reached? Here are some photos of myself from late last year, when I had turned sixty-five:

The first thing to remark on is that these are all selfies: I am not one half of a couple. And I holiday alone. Neither of my parents would have dreamed of taking a selfie, and neither would ever have set forth unaccompanied. They were each other's lifelong support - perhaps (in a psychological sense) dangerously so. I have no such dependency on another person. 

Although I would never claim to be adventurous, and I am nervous of quite modest heights, I do think nevertheless that I am more inclined than Mum ever was to do dodgy things, such as getting near to cliff edges for the sake of a photo. And I certainly drive faster than Dad would have. I'm guessing that the lack of a family leads to a degree of personal recklessness, or dismissal of danger. In other words, if your demise can make no practical difference to anyone, you tend to take the odd extra risk. The lack of a family - never having been more than a light-handed step-parent, and that for just a few years - also shows up in having a less careworn demeanour. Or is this actually a generational thing - that my generation, having no wartime experiences, and long used to healthier and less stressful living, genuinely seems younger, fitter, and more energetic? (Post-surgical toes aside, that is!)

I certainly don't share Mum's sharply-defined attitudes. I'm less dogmatic, far less likely to take a stand on a principle, and I am certainly a good deal more diplomatic - something learned from my Dad there. 

Enough said for the present. I will return to how I compare with my Mum in future posts. We must have strong similarities, but mostly I can't see what they are at the moment. I am chatty, just like Mum was, but I wouldn't build too much on that. 

I was always too different from my younger brother for there to be a close affinity, but if he were still alive, we could at least see each other and discuss our parents, Mum in particular. But that cannot happen. It's at times like this that I wish there had been a sister...

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Slightly ripped off

I think restaurants and gastro-pubs everywhere need to pause and rethink what they are presently offering to customers. I eat out a fair bit, at least twice a week, and I'm definitely noticing a trend away from giving good value. Either you pay an awful lot, or get small portions, or both. I will exempt Indian, Chinese and Italian restaurants from this general complaint: thank goodness, you can still get a full tummy for a very reasonable amount at such eateries, unless they have pretentions. I'm mainly talking about the kind of place found in the centre of Brighton, but also in other trendy spots, that aim to impress you with their ambience. All over the country. I noticed quite a few of them last summer in Newcastle, on the north bank of the Tyne, near the Sage and the Baltic.

Last night at the Côte Brasserie in Brighton, for instance. An upmarket exterior; staff everywhere, buzzing to and fro; comprehensive menus, catering for various needs (one of our party needed gluten-free food: there was a special menu ready for her); generally a classy experience.

We had an £80 voucher to spend (Côte had cancelled a pre-Christmas booking at the last moment - a kitchen problem - and the voucher was recompense) but nobody went mad on what they ordered. Each had a starter, a main, and either a dessert or a coffee. I myself had a smoked salmon starter, a lamb shank main, and a black coffee instead of a dessert, accompanied by one large glass of house white wine, and some water. I drank less wine than three of the others - who shared two bottles of house red - but otherwise my food and drink selection wasn't very different in cost or quantity from what the others ordered. How much then? There were five of us, and the bill (before deducting that £80) came to £196, with a 12.5% service charge automatically included. £39 each. That wasn't a cheap meal.

Here's a shot of my smoked salmon starter, with capers, on a medium-sized plate.

Eaten with a small amount of toast, it was very nice, but scarcely a tummy-tightener.

This was my main. A diddy lamb shank on some mashed potatoes with mustard in it, and a pleasant jus. No green vegetables - those would have been extra, and I overlooked ordering any.

It was very good; cooked just right; but there wasn't a lot of it.

Add in one glass of white wine (nothing extra special), a tumbler or two of tap water out of a china bottle, and an ordinary Americano coffee.

Was it all really worth almost £40? I don't think so.

I'm not singling out Côte as an arch perpetrator of poor value. As a social occasion, it was great. The service was friendly and attentive, if a little too inclined to suggest we bought more drinks. But I do say that I expected more to eat for the cash.

Earlier that day, at lunchtime, I was at village friend Jo's, and she had whipped up a spicy soup...

...and a vegetable quiche with new potatoes, pasta, and a salad to follow...

...accompanied by somewhat more than one glass of white wine (I provided the bottle), water, and a nice cup of tea. Oh, I forgot the yummy yoghurt, summer fruits and blueberry dessert (I could have had a that on a meringue nest, but I turned the nest down, wanting to be as Slimming-World compliant as possible).

The bottle of wine cost me £7.95, and I drank £3-worth of it, another bottle coming into play. (There were four of us: Jo, Jackie, myself, and Jo's husband Clive, who joined us from a morning's golf) And that was an attractive, satisfying meal, which Jo described as 'light' but was actually rather filling and threatened my appetite for feasting at Côte later the same day. What might it have cost overall? Let's say £15 for the foodstuffs consumed, plus another £15 for the two bottles of wine we opened: £30 for the four of us. £7 a head, give or take a bit.

My point is, what you cook up at home, and what it costs, is a world away from what you get at a restaurant in town, and what that costs. It was of course always thus, but recently I think the difference has become more marked. Nowadays, eating out at gastro-pubs and brasseries, let alone places with more stellar reputations, seems to involve real pain in the purse department. Pain not mollified by enjoying a meal to remember.

What has gone wrong? I suspect that over the last ten years popular TV cookery programmes like Masterchef, and the way a bunch of celebrity chefs have become household names, have all created an aspiration for 'fine dining', and a public liking for places to eat that offer a special experience. It's been goodbye to traditional pub grub, hello to new twists on old recipes, quirky menus, and fussy service - anything to make the food on the plate look 'different' and full of 'added value'. But whether you get adequate nutrition for the money is another matter. Attempts at finesse and refinement generally mean not much on the plate. Personally, I wouldn't mind if the food were tipped onto the plate anyhow, so long as it was tasty, and I had enough to eat. I don't greatly care about artistic presentation. It's nice, but hardly essential. I'm certainly not impressed if a tiny pot of jus is dribbled for me over a single shaped carrot, or speck of meat, as the chef's signature flourish.

I mean, look at this chock-full plate of food I cooked up at home recently, just for myself one evening.

Or this.

Or this.

No art here. Just a neat arrangement on the plate. But these meals were delicious, filling, and - gravy and mint sauce excepted - Slimming-World compliant too. The ingredients were good-quality (mostly from Waitrose, or a local butcher) but didn't really cost all that much.

Why can't I get hearty meals like this at places like Côte? I appreciate that I must pay a premium for their doing the cooking, and I clearly understand that they need to cover their overheads and make a decent profit. But I still want a well-covered plate for my money!

A vain hope. All that attentive, friendly, service  comes at a price. And a whole generation of young chefs have been taken on, and expect to be paid well. So to cover these staff costs, you get less food, and pay through the nose for it. And in many places it feels like a rip-off.

I still think that a wonderful meal out is one of life's great pleasures. But I think the experience is getting rarer. Either the meal has been big on theatre but small on hunger-satisfying potential, or the cost has been so much that after paying I've wanted to forget it all, as if it had been a rash and embarrassing mistake that I'd rather not admit to. Especially when I can prepare a fabulous meal for myself for so much less cash.

I hear that many restaurants are getting worried about profitability in the year ahead. Customers have been led to expect more, but are feeling the pinch and are looking for ways to eat out for less. Or indeed eat in. Some restaurants are bound to go under. It won't be enough to pile on peripheral things like a posher ambience. People want, above all, delicious food and plenty of it.

So I say: less pretension, please, and better value. Or we will all stay away.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

No Orchids for Miss Melford

It was of course St Valentine's Day yesterday. No welter of Valentine cards fell through my front door. I certainly wasn't expecting any, and would have been shocked if there had been even one of them. My days as the object of love-messages - or the sender of them - are long over!

And never to return. I have made my mind up about that. No more attempts to find love, nor any attempts to secure a special relationship involving a yearning for one person in particular, and exclusive commitment to them.

I've tried doing it. I've had some short-lived relationships, and two long-term ones. Both the long-lasting relationships ended sourly, with dire consequences for my self-confidence and self-valuation. Indeed every relationship I've ever had, brief or longer-lasting, has ended badly or at least discreditably, leaving me with the feeling that I could have done a lot better if the will had been there. But if you really don't possess all the qualities necessary for making a relationship work, or you can't cope with the ordinary demands of a worthwhile relationship, or you find that a relationship has turned out to be a prison, rendering you powerless and unappreciated, or simply bored, then it's time to get out. And stay out.

Staying out also means avoiding romantic love, what St Valentine's Day is all about. Yet for the sake of self-preservation, I am happy to do that. I don't think it will warp my nature. But who knows?

But I will never be able to pass St Valentine's Day by without noticing it. For I got married on that day in 1983. It was my idea, my own romantic gesture. And my marriage began reasonably well. But was not so good after 1987, and separation followed in 1991. Then divorce in 1996.

There was never a proper inquest as to why it failed. There were definitely shortcomings on both sides, though not misbehaviour. In retrospect, from the distance of thirty-odd years, I would say that if I'd had more experience, more insight into human nature, more understanding of what it really takes to live with someone long-term, then I'd have backed away from the entire affair and - whatever the inconvenience to others - stopped the show. I don't see now how it could ever have worked. Neither of us was unkind, disloyal or mean-spirited, but we were not kindred spirits. It fell apart because of insufficient glue. We hadn't bonded properly. And yet the relationship that eventually followed this one seemed to be full of bonds, and it lasted much longer, yet it too melted in the end.

Some people no doubt said that I could have fought for my marriage, that it failed because I let it go without trying hard to save it. Or that I should have given more, and more again, and not stop until I had no more to give. In other words, not admit the thing had passed the point of no return, and seek martyrdom instead. Rightly or wrongly, my temperament did not allow that to happen.

I don't believe that any amount of shared interests, attitudes, standards and jokes are enough to ensure success. I think it must - tritely - all be a matter of 'chemistry'. Whatever makes it satisfying, interesting, and exciting to be with another person. It's not reducible to box-ticking. You need the ability to feel, and to reach out, and to think as much of somebody else's needs as your own. And there must be a longing that only another person can fulfil. I'm much too self-contained, much too independent, to have that kind of longing. I'm very fortunate in being content with this, for wanting to walk the world alone. So many single people are not at all content, and suffer accordingly.

Still, I have mixed feelings about missing out on enjoying a candlelit Valentine dinner, whether at home or out. It's a ritual, of course. But I remember it meaning something very important in years long past. It was a mutual reassurance that the relationship was still alive and kicking, the flowers and cards a re-avowal of romance. That we had made it through one more year. That we were still 'in love'. If the divorce hadn't taken place, yesterday would have been an important wedding anniversary - the thirty-fifth. We would have shared a particularly love-soaked occasion, or would have tried to.

I never had a family of my own. That might have been a big factor in the collapse of my two main relationships. It's surely an important thing for older couples to ponder, as they sip their wine in the candlelight, that the natural result of love is a family. A joint achievement. It's glue.

Ah well. For me, it's a face into the wind, and eyes on the far horizon. 'Stay alive, stay free'. My personal motto. Life unhindered, life unfenced. But life without love.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Harry the lizard

If you like watching BBC1's police-detective series set in the Caribbean, Death in Paradise, then you must have noticed that a small creature regularly makes an appearance at The Shack, which is the beach residence of the current Detective Inspector of the tiny police force on the island of Saint Marie. This creature is Harry, the resident lizard at The Shack.

He's perky and green, and seems to enjoy the company of his 'owners', who have all taken him on in succession, and made sure that he is fed and watered. The Inspector in Series One and Two (and episode one of Series Three), Richard Poole (played by Ben Miller) took that duty very seriously, and actually kept a book - secretly - on how to care for a pet lizard in his work desk. His successor for Series Three to Six, Humphrey Goodman (Kris Marshall) also had a great relationship with Harry, and liked talking to him, though he sometimes had reason to deliver an admonishment. For instance, for unsympathetically munching a juicy moth while Humphrey soliloquised about his agonised love-life; for attempting to eat vital forensic evidence (a Martinique cockroach); and for scaring his visiting father as he slept.

The latest DI for a bit of Series Six, and all of Series Seven, Jack Mooney (Ardal O'Hanlon), has developed a really soft spot for Harry. He is terribly concerned when the little fellow falls ill in a recent episode. All is well by the end, though, with Harry restored and duly grateful, but keen to leap off into the rafters in search of insects. Here he is, back from the vet and getting a fuss from Jack and his DS, Florence Cassel:

In earlier series of the programme, Harry didn't always look quite so uniformly bright green. Perhaps lizards change colour with age! Here he is back in Series Three and Four:

Mind you, there really are Caribbean lizards, and some of them are bright green like this. The programme-makers did their homework. Such a lizard is found in the Eastern Caribbean (where Saint Marie is supposed to be - it's actually filmed on Guadeloupe), and is called the Guadeloupean anole, or Leopard anole - anolis maramoratus. Here's a Wikipedia link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leopard_anole. If he remains well looked-after, and doesn't get murdered (as so many do on Saint Marie: the slaughter is awful, and I'm surprised there is any tourist industry there at all), Harry might easily live for fourteen years. So when Death in Paradise finally comes to its natural end, there may be a spin-off series about Harry in later life, by then a TV legend.

Harry isn't a real lizard, given to clever acting right on cue. This YouTube video explains his true nature: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LWB6ESuarwY. But it's so well done, I find Harry entirely believable as a character, and in his own way very endearing. 

I've always had a fond regard for little lizards, but that's another story, about three weeks in a farmhouse in France during the mid 1990s...