Monday, 28 July 2014

Child Genius

I watched only part of this programme last night but it was sufficient to get the general idea - lots of children believed to be overly intelligent by their biased parents being forced to participate in a ridiculous competition of pointless memory tasks and Mensa questions. (Unless memorising the order of two decks of cards will enable them to win millions of pounds at poker in future years - that makes it more useful.) The poor children had been taken away from all their friends and the chance of living a normal life with some degree of social skills. And the whole thing caused them huge amounts of stress and humiliation and annihilated their self-confidence, at an age when they should just be kicking a ball around the yard and learning to ride a bike.

It was all a lot more unbearable seeing these poor kids struggling on national TV than watching them performing an excruciating solo in the Christmas concert, the maximum ritual humiliation most of us faced in our own school days. And that was bad enough.  It was even more horrid to see the blame for their mistakes poured on them by their disgusted parents. There is nothing worse than a competitive mother who forces her fantasies and own lack of achievements on to her child with the assumption that they will succeed where she has failed. People need to accept that our children, just like their parents and our parents, are merely human. These mothers are the sort of women who see Amy Chua, the Chinese Tiger Mother my book group learned to loathe, as a desirable role model, where there is all work and no play and only a very dull empty shell of a child left to parade about at the end of the day.

What caught my eye on the television screen was the backdrop to the competition. Watching the children revise their decks of cards in a library, I looked more closely at their surroundings and said, "I know that room." I'd been in it myself aged 14. They were in the Royal Institution on Albemarle Street in London. Suddenly I was experiencing a horrible flashback. Very much not in the guise of child genius, I had spent every Saturday morning there for half a term, attending a series of Maths Masterclasses. I still have no idea to this day why I was picked by my school to be subjected to such torture. I think it must have been someone's idea of a sick joke. The school had sent some proper Maths geniuses (genii?) the term before but then must have run out and picked names out of a hat from the rest of the class to fill the remaining quotient. Or twenty other girls had said "Not on your nelly" before they reached me on the list and my parents said "Ooh, a trip to London every weekend - yes please."
I am not a maths genius

Now, I had been sent with a friend, who may read this and think, "What do you mean, they sent us as a joke? I AM a maths genius, thanks very much." So I can only speak for myself. But I was very grateful that said friend had been sent with me as it meant we could make exactly the sort of mischief that the children on that programme should have been up to, instead of swotting away their lives. For example, the tables in that library are very good for dancing on, I can reveal. We were sent to that room to solve reams of sums after an hour's lecture which I had usually ceased following somewhere between the middle and end of the first sentence.

There was a genuine genius on the front row of every lecture, however. He wore massive old-style NHS glasses and a bowl haircut, never took his coat off, and had a gigantic calculator that could print out on paper. This was the height of technology in 1987. He would not only make it to the end of the first sentence of the lecture but would, after about twenty minutes, raise his hand and wheeze out a question that would stop the lecturer in his tracks, if not stump him entirely. And then they would go off on some glorious tangent together, the way that some of us flit off on a gap year, without a care in the world for the poor souls left behind.

And yes, it was a trip to London every weekend for our parents. Obviously we were far too young to be trusted to go by ourselves. My mother was probably terrified something would have happened to us in the hands of all the "scary foreign perverts" that she believed were London's sole inhabitants until I went to live there myself ten years later. But the truth was that - left to our own devices - we would no doubt have not gone within 200 yards of the Royal Institution but turned the opposite direction out of Bond Street tube onto Oxford Street instead. Though I don't suppose my pocket money would have got us very far.

Anyway, I have no idea what my parents got up to after we had been safely dropped onto Albemarle Street, but they usually took us somewhere fancy in London afterwards, which made up for our morning of misery. I am glad they had the decency to feel guilty, unlike the parents on Child Genius. These few weeks were my first introduction to Fortnum and Mason's on Piccadilly, Fenwick's on Bond Street and the Ceylon Tea Centre on Haymarket, an early taste of how the other half live and breathe in the capital and enough to make me want to go back for much, much more. I only hope that the kids on this TV programme are allowed to have a bit of fun at the end of the competition - I fear not.

(This blog was written during an episode of Topsy And Tim. Thank you, dear twins.)

Friday, 18 July 2014

Must try harder

There was a progress update session at my daughter's nursery last week. A "progress update" is basically a chance to have a look through the little book they keep about her and to address any concerns we may have. Besides several lovely photos of her having a thoroughly good time painting pictures, taking part in theatre workshops and - gulp - stroking snakes, there were occasional quotes recorded. One of these read "I love my mummy because she watches DVDs with me."

Oh crumbs. Is this the sole one of our shared activities that she can remember and chooses to tell people about? Not the baking, the Play-Doh, the jigsaws, the stories, the endless games of Shopping List, the trips to the park and the seaside? The play dates I arrange, the trampolining at Heworth's famous Gym Club, the weekly swimming session at York Sport or Energise? And of course the people she chooses to tell are those responsible for educating her, with a direct line to social services... Thank you, my child. It isn't even true - I hardly ever watch DVDs with her. She's usually watching them by herself. (This probably sounds even worse!) She does have a lot of DVDs, nearly all of which came from the charity shop. One of them shows a man getting so pissed on cider he passes out. (His name is Windy Miller, and I am referring to a Camberwick Green episode from 1966.) But I usually shove DVDs on only when I am desperately trying to cook dinner, and CBeebies has chosen to show a programme my daughter irrationally dislikes. For CBeebies seems to put on all the things she hates between five and six o'clock - Gigglebiz, Grandpa In My Pocket and Old Jack's Boat - just when I need it the most.

Charity shop DVD about an errant drunkard
I know I extolled the virtues of CBeebies in my original blog post about the reason to why I chose to blog on the topic of "telly and travels". Yes, I have relied on television and DVDs to help me survive at times of crisis when raising my child, but generally if at all possible, we adopt a Why Don't You? (remember that, ye children of the '80s?) policy and switch off the TV set and go out and do something less boring instead. We travel. My daughter just doesn't seem to have noticed yet.

The biggest challenge of my year is rapidly approaching. The six-week summer break. This time last year my daughter still had some sort of afternoon nap most days so there was always a little break for me to recharge a little. Now it's going to be full-on three-year-old-dom from dawn until dusk. I am very, very scared. I know that York and Yorkshire offer us no shortage of wonderful things to do, but I have no idea how I am going to keep up my energy and enthusiasm. It's the relentlessness of childcare that I have always struggled with. And however much I shall endeavour to ban my daughter from doing so during the day, I will inevitably crash with abandon on the sofa each evening in front of the television. But there will be no time or energy to blog about anything that I watch. So see you in September, when hopefully normal service will resume.

Saturday, 12 July 2014


Champneys sent me an e-mail this week encouraging me to watch this programme, since it was a documentary all about them. I am not sure if they had seen an advance copy, since it hardly showed the place in a favourable light. But then Champneys have been on fly-on-the-wall telly before, many moons ago, and while I didn't see any of that series (The Health Farm), my understanding is that it should have been equally bad for business, yet the business has continued to thrive.

Champneys is a health resort near Tring in Hertfordshire, and I was lucky enough to go there for the day as a 40th birthday present from my family. I had a fabulous few hours of pampering and deep relaxation, but I wasn't too surprised to learn that everything isn't quite so idyllic behind the scenes.
A souvenir from my day, recently worn to paint our gate
(hence the black splodges).

The documentary was focusing on a recent refurbishment. I can see where the need for some reinvention had arisen. Traditionally, Champneys was exactly what the first documentary was called, a health farm, "a simple resort" where clients went for therapeutic care that involved a strict regime, a change of lifestyle, low-fat cuisine, and lots of exercise. Guests went to bed "with hot water and lemon". But then it became more of a relaxation-based spa. And the trend these days is for all luxury hotels to have a luxury spa. And so once Champneys developed as a big name luxury spa, it was expected to be a luxury hotel as well. And, if reports are to be believed, its accommodation lets it down. Hence a truckload of new managers being brought in to turn things around.

I didn't see any of the bedrooms during my daytime visit so I couldn't possibly comment. But I would agree with the other problem area identified - reception. People have to spend far too long hanging around on arrival, waiting for one of only two welcome desks to become free. Everyone is desperate to get on with the main business of the day - pampering and relaxation - and a tiresome queue is exactly the sort of thing that people have come here to escape. I don't quite know why the new specially imported "reception expert" couldn't just see that a couple of extra people behind a couple of extra desks would have solved the majority of problems. But instead the receptionists (I accidentally typed "receptionits" there, somewhat appropriately) have to undergo compulsory retraining to "Champnify" their language (the word "hi" is henceforth banned), and builders hurtle in to strip the wallpaper and lay a new carpet, at massive inconvenience to the guests. The furniture is apparently all replaced, but it all ends up looking exactly the same as when they started.

The managing director is clearly an outdated fool who is difficult to work for, shuffling along being unpleasant to everybody. He also believes that all the people wandering around in dressing gowns make it look like something out of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. Hmm, not really the sort of atmosphere I'd be endeavouring to create at a health resort.

The two ladies in charge of housekeeping bitch and snarl and go behind each other's backs, trying to lay the blame for various issues at one another's door. They clearly resent each other so intensely that the atmosphere between them is possibly fuelling the Jacuzzi. Meanwhile, staff are forgetting to clean the bedrooms and put fruit in the appropriate places, and a large rip in a cushion is ignored on camera. A German manager is brought in to oversee the refurbishment and he starts talking about shooting people, which doesn't bode well.

The guests, apart from the disruption caused by the building work, thankfully all appear to be having the lovely time that I did. They are mostly women of a certain age, but there are some elderly gents too, who seem slightly bemused by the place. There are celebs, both minor and major. Samantha Bond at a do, Bobby Davro on a treadmill, Greg Rutherford in "recovery", someone from Girls Aloud with her mum, a memory of Diana, and talk of Daniel Craig, and Peter Andre excited about being in the queue with Daniel Craig.  There's a photo of Judi Dench on the wall. There was a nice painting above the fireplace in one of the lounges, but a visiting member of an Arab royal family (staying at Champneys for several months, at an extortionate price) has requisitioned that for her room, at no extra charge. Though the manager did get forensics to check "it wasn't a Rembrandt or a Picasso" first. You would have liked to think he might have been able to tell the difference between the two, even if he couldn't detect a genuine piece of art from a forgery.

Ladies are shown luxuriating in the outdoor Jacuzzi (I can recommend it, even in the rain) and snoring on massage tables. Some are complaining about the low-fat menu, and the unavailability of chocolate gateau for dessert, alcohol at lunchtime and cream for their coffee. One lady refers to the sauna as a "drying cabinet". Another has ended up groping somebody by mistake in the very dark Quiet Room. (I can understand how this happened.) They all flirt outrageously with the waiter Charles, whose one trick appears to be jumping over his own leg, which he gaily does from dawn until dusk.

The mansion that houses Champneys was built by the Rothschild family for a dowager who never actually moved in. Nonetheless it was kept fully staffed and waiting for her for 15 years. There are photos of another Lord Rothschild, who - instead of being a banker - opened a zoo. The photos show him riding a giant tortoise and using zebras to pull his carriages. Which makes all of Champneys' flotation and kryotherapy suites, thalassotherapy pools and "seafood wraps" (as one guest calls them) look a little less bizarre in comparison. What there is no doubt about is that the place is huge - when you visit you spend hours trailing up and down corridors without even the vaguest sense of direction. But it was nice to see some of the 200 acres of grounds on this programme, since they were entirely shrouded in wet mist when I was there. (You can see Lord Rothschild's now deceased pets and taxidermy collection at the incredible Natural History Museum in Tring, which we visited with our daughter last year. There are more stuffed animals behind glass than you could possibly imagine.)

The last port of call for most visitors is the Champneys shop, run by a gruff lady who says of the products, "They all wash you. They all nourish you. They all exfoliate you. Pick the one you like the smell and the colour of!" She's probably right. What she doesn't mention is that you can usually get them on a 3 for 2 offer at Boots.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Summer of Sport (Part 3)

"If it's outside Yorkshire, it's not worth bloody visiting." (Captain Boycott on Hale and Pace's Yorkshire Airlines sketch)

I suspect there won't be many times where I will be "telly and travelling" simultaneously. That I will be where I am watching, and watch where I am being. But thanks to Yorkshire's successful bid to win "Le Grand Départ" of the Tour de France, this is exactly what I managed to do on Sunday 6th July 2014.

Unforecast good weather made Yorkshire look nothing short of amazing on both opening stages of the Tour. The welcome given to the cyclists - joyful, uproarious hysteria as opposed to the gruff 'ey-up some may have been expecting - was possibly unprecedented on its opening leg abroad. Thousands of people lined the entire route, no matter how remote the cyclists were.

The atmosphere around our local York community has been fantastic for weeks. I have already shown you some pictures of our local shopping parade and yarn-bombed park. The streams of bunting continued to fly. The shopping parade, renamed "Bishy Rue" in honour of the occasion, won a Yorkshire Post award for the best-dressed neighbourhood. Even the semi-derelict Terry's chocolate factory clock tower up the road acquired a maillot jaune ready for the big day.

As we had my aunt staying, on Saturday night we were able to make the most of a Tour de France beer festival at the local pubs down the road. No French beer, mind, just Yorkshire brews with funny names. Mostly "On Yer Bike". Our favourites (in taste) were Salamander's "King of the Mountain" and Yorkshire Dales Brewery's  "Butter Tubs". For there's nowt so grand as t'Dales.
Yorkshire cuisine

A giant Fruit Shoot

Race day itself didn't disappoint. We were trapped here anyway, as all surrounding roads were closed and parking suspended. So you would have been churlish not to simply embrace and enjoy what was happening. All we had to do was walk fifty metres to the end of our street, and there was the race route. Or parade route, technically, since the cyclists didn't start racing properly until they were nearly at the Poppleton Road roundabout on the A59. (Miraculous how they managed to get the roundabout resurfaced on time, since a week ago it was still a mess of roadworks that had been there for months.)

First through came the famous caravan, with its pumping music and crazy floats topped with giant Fruit Shoots and packets of oven chips (or "performance enhancing substances" as they are known in Yorkshire), throwing freebies to the crowd and adding substantially to our daughter's keyring collection. Then there were a lot of gendarmes on motorbikes and sponsors' cars. Team Sky drove a nice Jag. Finally, after an hour's break and a flypast by a Spitfire and a Lancaster bomber, at last - whoosh! - came and went the bikes, 200 cyclists (minus injured Mark Cavendish) crammed into an impossibly small road surface area. The crowd went wild. And then there was just a smidgeon of anti-climax as you realised that after months of build-up, it was all over. In seconds.
Spitfire and Lancaster Bomber

Lots of men's bottoms clad in Lycra
Except it wasn't. We could then go and watch the remaining 200 kilometres of the gruelling race to Sheffield on t'telly. We dashed back so we could see the peloton circling York city centre, with the Minster as its backdrop. Annoyingly, ITV switched to an ad break as soon as the cyclists hit pretty Bootham, so they could be back broadcasting in time for the actual race start. The inconsiderate nature of commercial television towards us residents. Not that the commentators had much of interest to say when they were on air. They may have been reasonably briefed on the nuances of Le Tour (of this I have little knowledge myself so could hardly hold them to account), but they certainly knew bugger all about Yorkshire. They were clearly relying on some badly researched patronising flashcards, handed over one by one, and there had been no pronunciation training or accuracy checking. Harewood House or Harwood House? Haworth or Harworth? "Apparently it's quite nice walking country up here."  "They call these hills fells." "I think there is a song about wearing a hat on Ilkley Moor, isn't there?" and (going past Newby Hall): "Ah, look, it's Castle Howard." It's only when you are blessed with a bit of local knowledge that you realise just how full of crap television can be.

Local news coverage of course made the effort to explore what was going on throughout the whole county, but in the build-up to the race, most national news journalists sent up from London barely left the media hub outside Leeds station. A couple of cameramen and reporters wandered the few yards over to City Square where someone had stuck a yellow jersey on the Black Prince statue, but so much was left unshown to the world by them. Until race day, when they had no choice. Between the ad breaks, anyway.

Anyway, back in York, for more company we then went to our local park, which was meant to be a spectator hub, only someone had forgotten to deliver the giant screens. Probably because they had heard that the organisers were planning to show Sing-along-a-Grease instead of the cycling. (I bet you think I'm joking.) But there were at least some extortionate fairground rides for our children to go on instead.

So we quickly headed on to the wonderful street party down on Bishy Rue, which was deservedly crowded and all a bit much for our tired-out daughter. But as the perfect end to a perfect day, I managed to win second prize in the street party raffle - £200 in vouchers for local Bishy Rue shops, businesses and eateries. For me, Le Tour can live on a little while longer.

And my televisual highlight? Well, it would be impossible to choose from the footage of the crowds or the stunning Yorkshire scenery (as long as the commentary was switched off). I could plump for local hero Johnny Hayes, formerly of Pextons and now chair of the Bishy Road Traders Association (and we all thought he'd retired!), being interviewed (dressed as a Frenchman) on BBC Breakfast about the Bishy Rue street party. But instead I will go for Harry Gration (Look North presenter, York resident and pantomime cameo regular, who said our street party was one of his personal highlights) kissing Gary Verity (chief executive of Welcome to Yorkshire) on both cheeks, French style, to say "Merci beaucoup" for bringing us the Tour de France. Now that does deserve an Ooh là là or two.

Monday, 7 July 2014

A Cabbie Abroad: Canada

Mason McQueen is a London cabbie who has taken to gaining the Knowledge in some of the world's most far-flung corners and most treacherous driving conditions. He believes he is well qualified. Not because he has mastered the nuances of the North Circular but simply because, he claims, a London cab driver is "naturally a nosy bastard".

His mantra is "Want the lowdown on a place? Speak to a cab driver." By working and living amongst the locals he can gain access to experiences and information that your average travelogue presenter can't. Last week he was in Cambodia, driving a tuk-tuk, eating tarantulas, learning about the horrors of the Killing Fields for the first time, and bearing witness to the extreme social divides of wealth versus poverty.

This week he is in Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, in Canada's Arctic north. Here he also eats local delicacies (frozen whale meat or walrus penis, anyone?) and noodles, and discovers another world of contrasts - the extraordinary intermingling of a boomtown on the edge of oil, metal and mineral excavation and the harsh struggles of its native settlers, the Inuit.

Iqaluit is minus thirty degrees when Mason arrives, and as the sea has frozen over, the only way in is by plane. He is going to work for local cab firm Pai-Pa taxis. Few people own cars this far north and as there is no public transport, nearly everyone goes by taxi. At least in winter, when walking for even a couple of minutes outside can result in frostbite to exposed areas of skin, as Mason's cheeks very quickly discover. ("Makes me look a right boozer!") The taxi company prides itself in being the last off the road during a blizzard, determined not to leave their customers stranded. Taxi drivers come - like Mason - from all over the world to benefit from their necessity. As cabs charge per passenger as well as for distance travelled, it can prove very lucrative.

Craig is Mason's new boss and takes him out to show him the ropes. "Is this a four-wheel drive?" Mason asks of his car. No, is the answer, before he is made to drive up Iqaluit's slipperiest hill, which he simply slides straight back down again, time after time after time. It's too expensive to import salt for gritting the roads. Mason doesn't wear a seatbelt. He also fails to indicate at a junction and drives straight through a stop sign. Typical London cabbie, then.

Iqaluit has no street names, just house numbers and a junction known as Four Corners, which is the busiest intersection in town. It even, Mason's boss tells him, has an occasional "rush minute". Passengers climb in and simply ask to go to a number. ("723, please.") "Er, is that near Four Corners?" Mason usually replies.

Gradually, he starts to find his way around, and meets several interesting characters along the way. Nancy is a Inuit with a baby on her back. She tries to teach Mason throat singing. Zoya is a marine biologist who has shipped up a year's worth of toilet paper from Winnipeg and earns enough money to afford a boat and a Ski-Doo.

The voiceover tells us that Mason has "volunteered" to help at a local soup kitchen. You kind of think "Like hell he has," but there is no doubt that Mason is genuinely moved and troubled by what he finds there. Homelessness in a place like Iqaluit is invisible, since anyone who slept rough on the streets would die instantly. Instead people couch-surf or sleep in rickety shacks, risking carbon monoxide poisoning from a decrepit stove which is their only source of heat. The soup kitchen is open seven days a week and for many of the Inuit who use it, it provides their only meal of the day.

Mason gradually gains more layers of clothing, and a fur hat. By the time he is given a day off to go ice fishing, he is made to wear a sealskin coat and polar bear trousers. This is the full-on Pingu experience, with a snowmobile to drive them there, a power-drill to create a hole in the ice, and lures to dangle into it for hours on end. The Inuit's traditional ways (just like Pingu's) are being stamped out by technology, but they still try to teach Mason some of their stretching and pushing exercises to keep warm.

It is dark in winter for up to 18 hours a day. You wonder if this - as well as the substance abuse and social problems the people face - has anything to do with the worryingly high suicide rate, particularly amongst teenage boys. Mason meets a young lad who has lost his best friend and is totally unable to understand what led him to end his life. As a parent, Mason cannot imagine the pain of having to bury your child at an age when their life should just be truly beginning.

It's a very lonely place, and one you must either love or hate. There is certainly no escape. Mason says he feels totally cut-off from the rest of the world and technically he is, especially when a massive snowstorm shuts the airport. But a sighting of the spectacular Northern Lights shows him a beautiful side to this harsh Arctic wilderness.

I have never ventured so far north, in Canada or anywhere else. I did once experience a few days of winter in Montreal, which at only minus 25 degrees in the windchill would probably seem positively tropical to anyone from Iqaluit. There wasn't much snow on the ground until my last day there, but a stroll around the back of the Oratoire St Joseph one morning showed me what it is like to battle extreme cold. By the time I was back at my lodgings, a hostel run by nuns who knitted slippers for their guests to wear around the house, my cheeks were throbbing and my legs were numb and blue. Stepping out on the pavements from anywhere indoors literally took your breath away. It was like a knife slicing across your face. Thankfully Montreal is kitted out to prevent you from spending much time outside when the elements are at their most brutal. It has a whole heated underground city of malls and eateries, all hooked up to the outskirts by an efficient Metro system.

Le Vieux Port in Montreal. The harbour was frozen. 
Oratoire St Joseph 
These aren't clouds, they are ice particles
Slippers knitted by nuns
Me in the blistering Canadian cold, in December 2000

I have actually managed to see the Northern Lights without needing to venture into the Arctic circle. Or even anywhere that far north. It was in Missoula, Montana, which is on approximately the same latitude as Milan. The regular appearance of the Aurora Borealis was evident, since the locals were as blase about it ("What on earth is that amazing shimmering green cloud hovering above the mountains?" "Oh, that's just the northern lights") as they were about hummingbirds ("What on earth is that amazing shimmering green bird hovering next to me?" "Oh, that's just a hummingbird.") Generally, if you are shimmering, green and amazing, it seems you like to hang out in Missoula, Montana. But I still don't know how the Northern Lights get there.

Anyway, Mason McQueen is a top bloke, and I look forward to seeing him at his next stop, the island of Fiji.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Summer of Sport (Part 2)

So I did develop a flicker of interest in the footie when I was awarded Ivory Coast in our local veg box scheme's World Cup competition. Whenever your awarded country exits the tournament you get a prize, and the longer the team lasts, the higher the prize. Would Ivory Coast do well enough to win me a bottle of wine or a quiche? Or even go all the way and bag me a large barbecue meat box? Even if we don't own a barbecue? But no, a last-minute Greek penalty and they were sent home in the first round, just like England. But I get a Montezuma chocolate bar for their pains, so that'll do nicely, thank you, Riverford.

I've not been to Ivory Coast, needless to add.

The next event on the summer of sport's calendar is Wimbledon, now in its second week. Quite extraordinary to see a British male reigning champion kicking (or rather hitting) everything off on Centre Court on the opening day. Andy Murray described the experience with typical aplomb - (shrugging gruffly) -"Yeah, uh, it was nice."

Annoyingly John Inverdale is still allowed to present the highlights programme on BBC2 in the evenings, despite his comments about Marion Bartoli after she won the women's final last year. Thankfully John McEnroe usually shows up to say something worth listening to, before they slip back to showing us footage of silly moments to silly songs and talking about socks. But with a rare flurry of nights out recently, I haven't been able to indulge even in this inanity too often. However, the tennis is on screen as I write this, as Andy Murray is playing Dimitrov. An interesting encounter for a certain two tennis-loving Bulgarians I used to work with, I am sure. Things are not looking too good for Murray at the moment.

I have at least been to see the tennis live at Wimbledon. Not for a long time now, but it was firmly in my London calendar when I lived there. For the 18 months I lived in Earlsfield I was in walking distance of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. Naturally, that is an irrelevance for 50 weeks of the year. Nonetheless when the tennis was on, it was great to be able to stroll across fields to Southfields tube rather than battle my way there on the District Line. And I could stop off for the finest, most delicate and beautiful curry of my life at the incredible Sarkhels (now, alas no more) on Replingham Road on the way home.

Most years I just turned up and queued, smuggling in my own strawberries and cans of Pimms to save money, but one year I was lucky enough to get tickets in the ballot for Centre Court on ladies quarter-final day. Unfortunately the weather wasn't particularly kind that year and - as it was before the roof was built - there were a lot of rain delays. However, as the ladies in the quarter final consisted mostly of the Williams sisters in their element, the matches were rattled through very quickly when they did get to play. And our seats were far enough up in the stadium that we had shelter through the downpours. Because hanging around on the outside courts does get a little tedious when rain stops play. It's extraordinary how long it takes to get things started up again even after just the briefest of showers.

It's all been rebuilt since, but a good place to go with a general grounds ticket used to be the standing area at the top of No 2 court. From there you were so high up that you could see not just the number 2 court but also several other outside court matches, as well as the scoreboards on Centre and No 1 Courts. (In the days before the giant screens on Henman Hill/Murray Mount, this was as close as you got to seeing anything of the biggest matches of the tournament.) You could also - if you kept turning round to look behind you - see various tennis stars go in and out of the competitors' area. Ivan Lendl and Stefan Edberg the first year I went.

One year I got stuck up there watching what I thought was the most boring match I had ever seen. Jonas Bjorkman slugging it out against some boring Swiss bloke in a headband. It was a never-ending five-set struggle that had not one but two rain delays. The tennis was totally uninspiring. I was on my feet for hours with little reward. We were all waiting for Serena to come on next. The boring Swiss bloke won in the end. No one had ever heard of him, but in his next match he went on to beat defending champion Pete Sampras. And then everyone suddenly sat up and took notice. His name, of course, was Roger Federer.

Some boring Swiss bloke in a headband
When I was a child, we used to play tennis with genuine Wimbledon tennis balls. As a student, my mother had worked there every summer in her vacation. Not as a ball girl (how I used to dream about being a Wimbledon ball girl, crouching down by the net and running to and fro!), but selling strawberries (so she claimed) to Harry Carpenter. The balls (still white in those days) were sold off cheap after matches (they had only been used for nine games after all) and were still going strong, if a little grey round the edges, in our back garden 15 years later.