Friday, 25 September 2015

Cradle to Grave

I can't say I ever had ever given much thought to the childhood of Danny Baker prior to this comedy biopic, but I am nonetheless thoroughly enjoying it. It's an easy watch for a Thursday night, and makes me smile. I love the 1970s period detail, particularly the wallpaper. The lino on the bathroom floor prior to the toilet exploding in last night's episode was the same as we had in our kitchen in 1976. Where did they unearth that from?

There are numerous funny moments. The discovery of the VCR, enabling them to watch Rising Damp on infinite repeat. A money-making scheme recording LPs onto cassette to pay for said VCR. The bottom falling out of a caravan. A mate left trapped upstairs in a bank with the alarms belting out. A football referee over-excitedly heading the ball into goal. A pathetic crush on a teacher with a dark room.

Peter Kay does a nice impression of Danny Baker, playing his Del Boy-esque wheeler dealer docker dad Fred (Spud). Spud's complicated scams in the pub leave the Bakers with a kitchen full of reeking fish and no washing machine. Now he has a wedding to fund, with two large families all expecting an invite. He tries to con the bank into paying the interest on a loan themselves. They ain't fooled, unsurprisingly. I am writing this on our 11th wedding anniversary, still very thankful to a) my husband for putting up with me for this long and b) both sides of our family helping us out with the cost of getting married. Admittedly, my own dad did try to persuade me to have my wedding reception in the local scout hut, which still smells the same as it did when I went to playgroup there aged three. Thankfully, since I was marrying a Cumbrian, we ended up in a cosy country cottage overlooking Windermere.

The backdrop to Danny Baker's youth is Bermondsey, the local football team West Greenwich. I spent a lovely day in Greenwich this summer with our daughter. I hadn't been there in years. Whereas once Greenwich might have meant a rummage in the markets and a pint of Meantime Brewery beer by the Thames, now it means a play in the park and a visit to the Maritime Museum. The park does have the most excellent play area, provided you only have one child. Unfortunately we were there with six, all running off in different directions, clambering on ropes, dodging scooters, burying themselves in sand, hiding in bamboo tunnels - and each with their own individual exit to bolt out of whenever they so chose. The park's rolling landscape gives parents no vantage point over the whole site so you are constantly losing your offspring, which is never a relaxing experience in a busy London borough. And my, the grass in that Greenwich park was absolutely parched - London got a summer this year that York did not.

The Lost Boys

Sheep grazing on parched grass

Bamboo tunnel

The Maritime Museum was rather dull when I was a kid. We had family friends who built their own boat and liked to go there with us. I remember the best thing being the badges in the gift shop. Now the museum is completely amazing, with a giant interactive map and two fantastic children's areas, where you can go fishing, play pirates, load ships (just like Spud Baker), camp in Antarctica, leap in sensory pools, fire cannons and run a fishmonger's. And it's all free. In fact it's so cool these days that your kids no longer notice the gift shop.

Maritime Museum

Pirate's moll


We also, by borrowing a membership card, got onto the Cutty Sark for free, the famous tea clipper that was once the fastest in the world, now fully restored after a massive fire in 2007. It also has loads of interactive stuff for kids, although ours were a little "shipped out" by then and it was time to get back on the bus to Eltham, our home for the week. No time this Greenwich trip for the scary dripping tunnel under the river and its clanking ancient lifts, the stuff of my childhood nightmares and still apparently going strong.

Cutty Sark

Scary dripping tunnel entrance under the glass dome

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

This is England '90

New decade for the Shane Meadows crew. Lol has a new job serving up school dinners. Mm-mm. The pupils look singularly unimpressed with the hotpot on offer. And there's no mint custard left for the chocolate sponge.

This possibly has something to do with Milky, Gadget and Shaun turning up every day to use the school as some sort of nostalgic soup kitchen, therewith depriving the kids of food. Nostalgic in that they want school dinners to remind them of a time when they were all "happy". Plus it's free food, for which Shaun will walk two miles - for the same sausage and chips that (his mother reminds him) he could have at home. And she claims she would cook him sausages that are less "grey". But it seems Shaun is getting the superior menu with his sausage and chips. Lol only offers Gadget new potatoes and coffee whip. "Who ever felt happy eating new potatoes?" Gadget laments.

The credits roll, and it's March 31st 1990, the day of the poll tax riots. I remember them well, since my dad managed to get us caught up in the middle of them. For his birthday treat he took us all to London, where he dragged us to an obscure opera matinee in the cheap seats at the Coliseum, followed by a meal in Chinatown. He picked a restaurant where the menu was only written in Chinese characters, which meant we had to take a possibly suicidal potluck with the food. Although this faded into insignificance when we went back outside to be greeted by a wall of riot shields and police. All day my dad had been blithely ignoring the helicopters circling overhead and the shouting coming from Trafalgar Square. I am not sure if he had been aware in advance of the planned demonstrations against the poll tax, but even if he had, he wouldn't have cancelled our trip. My dad doesn't change plans for anything. Flooding, hurricanes, flu, volcanoes, train strikes, military coups - he won't let them stop him. Anyway, here we were with us one side of Covent Garden and our car parked at Lincolns Inn on the other, with the slight matter of a massive riot and several fires to negotiate in between. Miraculously we managed to skirt round the worst of it. It was the height (and ultimate low) of Thatcherite Britain. I was in the Lower Sixth. I had just discovered the Cocteau Twins and love and was giddy on my German A Level that had just witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Probably the world's worst photograph of Trafalgar Square,
taken 25 years after the Poll Tax Riots
The soundtrack to the credits is "There She Goes". There are prisoners on the roof of Strangeways, there is Gazza optimistically heading to the World Cup, and John Gummer forcefeeding his daughter that burger. And yes, there SHE goes - Mrs Thatcher leaves Downing Street for the last time, which was the most exciting moment of the year on the radio in our Sixth Form common room.

And now we are in a time of Tory rule again, having hoped it had gone forever. There are currently free school dinners for our daughter too, with not a coffee whip in sight. She seems to rather like them. We certainly don't hear about much else of her school day. But she had been at school all of two weeks before the government announced it's probably going to scrap the universal free school meals scheme. You bastards. Mrs Thatcher took my milk away. Now Mr Osborne has the food on my daughter's fork in his greedy grasp.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Doctor Foster

What is going on here in the first episode? Paranoia and delusion? Or a woman's worst fears confirmed? It's not easy to tell. Doctor Foster on the surface has it all - sexy husband, good job, well-behaved son, nice house. Only then she finds a stray blonde hair on a scarf. Rather than confronting her husband directly about it, this discovery sets in motion seemingly irrational behaviour in Doctor Foster and an obsessive drive to determine the truth. Yes, it does rather look like the sexy husband is, um, sowing his oats elsewhere with a woman possibly half his age. But is he really? You can't quite trust anything you see. And a GP who bribes a drug-seeker to tail her husband with the promise of Temazepan is not the most reliable of witnesses. Although she does have a good sideline in evicting violent boyfriends. "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned" - it's all very intriguing, with a slight air of Fatal Attraction about it.

But before we start boiling bunnies, it's interesting to see the GP at work. She rolls her eyes at the latest visit from her resident hypochondriac and hastily evicts him when she finds something better to do. She has her mobile phone switched on during consultations and doesn't hesitate to use it for personal texts. She is distracted and dismissive. She also chairs a committee to strike off the only traditional family doctor left on the team, the one who laments the turning of the practice from one that cared about, had time for and knew all its patients into one that is just a systematic factory on an efficiency drive. Admittedly said family doctor also has a drink problem and fails to turn up for surgery, but he does have a point.

I think all of us have seen the rapid decline in GP services in recent times. Practices are closing or merging with others, but after a merger there seems to be no increase in numbers of doctors available, just even more patients than before clamouring for appointments. So much so that it's now often completely impossible to get one. For at least a decade it's been standard practice to ring your surgery on the day at 8am sharp to book yourself in. Not long ago - after a night of watching my delirious daughter hallucinate, struggle to breathe and not even be able to keep a sip of water down - I had to wait on the phone for 45 minutes before my call was answered, by which point the ten appointments available that day had long since been allocated. I knew it was probably a virus, but it's hard to think straight when you have been up all night and she was so ill that I needed reassurance that it wasn't something more serious.

There's that mother's instinct, which a GP has to trust. I find it's more reliable than my instincts about my own health. I don't want to bother a doctor unnecessarily, which means I, like many others, am relying ever more on NHS Choices and online discussion forums for information. NHS Choices is generally very helpful. Some of the other sources are terrifying. Possibly medically uninformed and probably trying to sell something and definitely likely to make you want to see a doctor even more. But what is bad is that Google sometimes offers more facts on a given condition or symptom than your average GP. They seem to be terribly ignorant about a lot of things. Medical students have always had a bit of a reputation for hard drinking and partying at UK universities. It's hardly practising what they will later preach, or a good basis for learning all that they need to know. I remember the medics at Newcastle University complaining about the pass rate for their exams being higher than for other subjects. But the point is, none of us want to see a doctor who only knows 40-50% of what they are supposed to. You want them to know a good 80-90%, or ideally 100. But that ain't ever going to happen. Certainly not now, when you are lucky if a doctor even wants to stay in the profession, or the country, after qualification.

GPs have so many patients to see that they have become masters of the fob-off - they will diagnose you with the first thing that comes into their heads so that they can get you out the door and see their next patient on schedule. They'd probably prefer to just speak to you on the phone and not see you at all. There is no time for them to probe any deeper and no budget for tests or referrals if they can possibly avoid them. Ten minutes is often nowhere near enough to get to the root of a problem. Or you just discuss the most pressing issue and have to leave the three niggling other things for another time that never comes. Most of us don't mind a longer wait if it means that the doctor will also not make us feel rushed when it's finally our turn, but GPs are having to meet targets and quotas and this is sometimes what they are pushed to care about more. I did have an excellent local GP who always gave you the impression she would do anything in her power to help you, but she is a rarity and sadly she has been off sick for the past six months (miraculously not with stress). I hope she isn't relying on her own GP or local NHS services to cure her.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

The Great British Bake-Off (2) - Going Gluten Free

Another year of Great British Bake-Off. It comes around too early, like the start of the football season. I think of it as autumn viewing, yet it started in August. Right now, mid-September, with the conkers ripening and the leaves developing an orange tint, I am still waiting for summer.

As is the Bake-Off tent. No melting baked Alaskas this year, just Paul Hollywood staring menacingly at rain.

This year, they had a "Free From" week. Which caught my attention, as I gave up eating gluten mid-June. (Which generally cancels the point of watching Bake-Off.) If you look at any online support group for Hashimoto's thyroiditis, one of the first things they usually tell you to do is give up gluten. (Something to do with gluten triggering a particular immune response in the thyroid.) Obviously no doctor tells you to do this, but I learned long ago that GPs know pretty much shit about thyroids, and are happy to let people go around feeling like crap for years so long as a score on a blood test comes back somewhere within a very large range of numbers. Given that I was diagnosed with this disease 11 years ago and have possibly had it for up to 30, I maybe should have tried stopping gluten a very long time ago, before I became dependent on medication for the rest of my life. I only finally cracked and tried it because I had developed an acid reflux problem on top of everything else (also common in Hashimoto's). A useless GP made the acid reflux a million times worse by making me take a ghastly PPI drug when really she should have left well alone. And I got desperate.

I can't say giving up gluten has had a wholly positive effect. I instantly felt clearer headed and more energetic, but this quickly shot into mania as my thyroxine dose became too high. This had a knock-on effect on other hormones as the summer progressed, and now I think my thyroxine has been cut too much and I will be battling fatigue, bone pain, hair loss and neck swelling until I can get a blood test score out of range enough for a GP to allow me to make a small increase. But it's interesting that my digestive system became so much better at absorbing my medication by stopping gluten. The sudden hyperthyroidism may have also had something to do with me rapidly losing weight - weight loss I partly attribute to no longer being able to eat nice bread and cakes. Shop-bought gluten-free versions are at best textually weird or packed with salt and sugar, and at worst downright revolting. Rather than making do with substitutes, I have learned to make my own or stick to things that are naturally gluten-free, like chick pea crackers or ground almond brownies.

So I was keen to see what Bake-Off could show me on the gluten-free front. The only part involving no gluten was the technical challenge - a Paul Hollywood gluten-free pitta bread recipe. The dough looked sticky and unappetising and the finished product not much nicer in comparison to the "real" thing served up in your average Greek taverna. Shame. I haven't managed to make anything better myself, which has a lot to do with having to put eggs and vinegar in gluten-free bread recipes, the taste of which I find cannot be masked.

It's been interesting eating out on a gluten-free diet. I haven't obsessed too much about cross-contamination, which I would have to do if I were a Coeliac. What a nightmare that must be, when a single grain of gluten can make you seriously ill. Cupboards and surfaces and utensils must be scrupulously clean of any trace of traditional flour, and restaurants need to be stringent about storage and preparation. Which of course many won't be. It's really made me understand how difficult life (and it is for life) must be for a Coeliac.

I can't speak for restaurant kitchens of places I have visited, only the menus. I have really only been to chain restaurants to eat out since I changed my diet, as they are good about publishing information about allergens, so I can check things in advance. They are also the sort of place that my daughter is happy in, because of the whole colouring and ice cream thing. Otherwise I have eaten a lot of baked potatoes in cafes, and a lot of quinoa salad. I would highly commend Jamie's Italian, who handed me a gluten-free menu as soon as I walked in, having made a reservation online which informed them of my dietary requirements. The menu had lots of yummy things to choose from, as opposed to the token one or two dishes you might find elsewhere. Pizza Express also has a couple of nice gluten-free dishes which aren't just their pizza toppings on a bought-in gluten-free base - things like risotto or baked aubergines. I have sampled gluten-free fish and chips in Filey, which tasted all the better for being freshly prepared to order, rather than sitting on the counter like the regular ones. I have yet to try gluten-only cafes like El Piano in York or the Walrus and Carpenter in Whitby. But the best place I have been to so far is a small bistro in Grasmere, Green's, which gave me the best shepherd's pie of my life and brought me a special cookie to have with my cup of tea without even being asked. Small touches make big impressions.

As for the less good experiences, I would have to include Wagamama's. which surprised me, as you think of rice-based Oriental food as being quite gluten light. However, nearly all their sauces contain soy sauce, which means you can't have them. Wagamama's will leave the dish unsauced and bring you a bottle of gluten-free soy to sprinkle on instead, but that doesn't taste nearly as good. Frankie and Benny's was also fairly shocking. I have never been under the illusion that Frankie and Benny's is a high quality place to eat. I only go there after I have taken my daughter to the cinema, as the "singing cafe" (as she calls it) is next door. Impressed to see they even had a gluten free menu, I was quickly disappointed to realise that this mostly consisted of salads of meagre portion size for an inflated £12 price tag. They were literally a lump of goat's cheese or the most revolting looking stewed pastrami on a few lettuce leaves and shreds of carrot, with just one small slice of new potato thrown in to be the carbohydrate filler. Gluten-eaters could have a gigantic lunch deal of wraps, fries etc for £6. I left hungry and poor, and therefore angry. Gluten free products are expensive, but there wasn't anything expensive in the dish I ordered for what they charged me. My decision to cut gluten was a personal choice rather than an absolutely necessary medical requirement, but it's very unfair of Frankie & Benny's to rip off people with a condition like Coeliac disease in this way.

The other dishes on the "Free From" Bake-Off were a sugar-free cake and a dairy-free Arctic roll. The contestants found humour in the fact that all the good stuff had been taken out of these dishes, but really the skill of a good baker in these circumstances lies in enabling people who have to miss out on some of the finer things in life to still find pleasure in food.
Gluten-free birthday cake for our girl so Mummy could eat it too

Monday, 14 September 2015

Save CBeebies!

In my first ever post on Telly And Travels I explained why I love CBeebies. And why it's OK for my daughter to watch it. Maybe not as much as she wants to, but certainly a little of it every day is more than beneficial to all concerned, her and me. I get to ring the plumber about that broken shower, she gets to learn about sea creatures on Octonauts. When I am having a bad thyroid day and struggling to get off the sofa, Dr Ranj will teach her how to be a good doctor. I get to fart about on Facebook, she learns about a new Hey Duggie game that will kick me off the computer and stop me farting about on Facebook.  I get to cook dinner, she gets to decide we have to move house. (Thanks, Topsy and Tim.) It's win-win. Until Ker-Whizz comes on anyway.

Today is my daughter's birthday and because my daughter is bossy and not because I am a great mother, I made and mailed an Octonauts-and-whatever-I-could-cut-out-of-an-old-magazine card for her to CBeebies four weeks ago. You will see below that there was no artistic skill involved whatsoever. But nonetheless we were all beside ourselves with excitement this morning when it was shown by the lovely Ben on the 7am birthday cards slot between Dinopaws and Postman Pat. It was like the time I was runner-up in a Blue Peter competition all over again, only without the badge giving me free entry to the Jorvik Viking Centre. Huzzah! My girl on the big screen. She jumped up and down on the sofa with delight, and that made my day.

It had a flap to lift and everything

Anyway, I write all this because the BBC, facing massive budget cuts, is thinking about closing down CBeebies. Someone clearly has no idea what that will do to family life, or more specifically to all the stay-at-home parents out there. Gin consumption will escalate. There will be tears and shouting, and not from the children. Children will watch too many adverts on other lesser kiddie channels and start pestering us to buy things. Cerrie, Andy, Alex, Rebecca, Cat, Ben and Katy would end up homeless. Andy might go on a dinosaur adventure and never come back. It just doesn't bear thinking about.

The BBC say programmes would be available online instead, but in my opinion staring at a computer for hours is worse than staring at a television screen, as it's closer to young eyes. And a tablet can't just be on in the background to free movement and creative play: it ties you to a chair. And while I will admit that most 3 year olds can operate an iPad better than me, they still won't have the finesse to locate the programmes they need. Plus the broadband connection in our house is s**te, so half the time watching anything on iPlayer is just looking at that sodding cerise circle buffering. And I bet there wouldn't be a birthday card segment.

Some of you without children will be thinking "Stop moaning, it's a good excuse to switch off your TV set and go out and do something less boring instead." To which I say there's a reason Why Don't You? isn't on any more. (It was crap.) And yes, for ten hours of the day we do, and this is for the remaining two when all other options (not to mention all of us) are exhausted.

Now that she has started school, I don't think that my daughter will watch CBeebies for much longer. She is out of the house for that much more of the day, and soon peer pressure will mean that she graduates to CBBC instead. But that doesn't mean I am not prepared to fight to save CBeebies. I owe it so much. Someone has organised a petition here. Sign it!

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Wolf Hall (2)

"Where is Wolf Hall?" I asked in a previous post. Now I know - turns out it's Barrington Court in Somerset. We stopped off at this National Trust property on a whim en route to Hawkchurch in Devon. We were running early owing to inclement weather at another National Trust property off the M5 (Tyntesfield) curtailed our visit, and our host wasn't yet home from work. We had an hour to kill, the rain showers had cleared, and the sun was reflecting in the puddles. It was a definite case of "Why not?"

So yes, previously unbeknownst to us, this Tudor mansion, left devoid of furniture after its previous owners the Lyle (as in Tate & Lyle sugar) family moved out, was taken over by the BBC last year as the backdrop to its production of Wolf Hall. They left some of the costumes behind in the otherwise empty rooms to prove it.

We paid off our £104 family membership of the National Trust in just six days this summer, by using properties in lieu of service stations to break up long car journeys between York, Warwickshire and Devon. In order of priority, Barrington Court, like all the others, offered clean toilets and a beautiful garden. The garden had archery to try, games to play, fish to admire, flowers to sniff, and space for our daughter (cooped up in the back of the car for far too long) to run around in. There was also a children's trail of things to spot in the house, though as usual our daughter refused to spot anything other than what was on the trail. Besides, how could I persuade her that the video clips of Wolf Hall playing were interesting when even I had found the television adaptation dark and dull? (Though there was a flicker of attention when I said that the miserable man in black was also the voice of Flop on Bing.) There was the regulation "nice tea room" (with free drinks for kids) for final refreshments before we clambered back into the car and moved on. Definitely what I call a Welcome Break.