Friday, 31 March 2006

School chums

I guess my friend Di probably knew this was coming, I did say a while ago that I was going to write about friends and friendships and then just did one small post about other people's friends.

Friendships are like rings in a tree trunk, but they are also like impossibly large webs of connections. Over the years and at different periods in my life I have had many friends and some have stayed connected and some have disappeared into the networks of other friends.

Yesterday I received a parcel from Di with this and other hessian shopping bags in it and it kind of completed a little triangle, two other friends from schooldays, Kerry and Eve had contacted me in the last few days.

The period of my life which started with secondary school was marked by a move to Surrey. My father had left the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and had taken a job at the Animal Virus Research Centre in Pirbright, a small village with several claims to fame. The AVRC developed the treament for foot and mouth disease, a previous squire of the village had been the Lord Stanley after whom the Hockey cup is named and there was an army base there, mainly guards and the regiment of gurkhas. The village was situated not far from Aldershot, the home of the British Army.

I met Di on my first day at grammar school. Woking County Grammar School for Girls. Looking back, I cannot see how other friendships started, but with Di it was clear, Miss Anderson, our form teacher had to register us in a physics laboratory and there we sat, Di and me, side by side on lab stools.

Somehow relationships grew, I had another group of friends, Di had another group of friends. I don't know how the friendship code allows that you can run two strong friendships alongside one another, but we all did. I had a group of six friends and within that two closer friends, Kerry and Eve and then sometimes I was with Di. I seem to remember standing in the chocolate cupboard queue a lot with Di, but sitting around speaking a mixture of Latin, French and German with Kerry and Eve, which for some reason we thought no-one would be able to understand because it was all mixed up.
Kerry made up a language. I can't remember the name of it, but I can still recall how to say 'I am a girl,' 'crap pipk ein lamtin.' My mother told me off for saying 'crap' although neither Kerry nor I knew what the word meant.
Kerry now lives in Croatia with her husband and four children and has done for many years and she translates for a living.
Eve is an artist and writer and always was, even at school. She waited until she was 40 to marry and then married the most perfect man for her.

Di and I though, we got into bother together. Both sets of parents were told that the other girl was a bad influence on their daughter. I think we just saw reflected mischief in each other. I'm sure we only bunked school twice, but we did it together.

Di's cousin was a saddler and we went to visit him. He lived in the country and grew illicit plants. He had a big open fire that burned wood. We would go there and it was a different world from our grammar school life. He loved Arlo Guthrie and we listened to 'Alice's restaurant' over and over. He had a different take on all sorts of things, challenging our way of thinking.

Over the years, Di and I have kept in touch and seen each other from time to time, but the wayward ways of our lives have continued to reflect each other. Men, marriage, children, study, careers, it's almost as though similar choices have made us.

All four of us moved away, two of us to different countries. That experience though, of secondary school, is like a rich soil that we shared and helped us grow. I didn't of course feel it at the time, but I look back and feel what a very special time that was, how lucky we were to be in that environment, valued and challenged by some truly great teachers. We were children and yet we were young women. The school and those women gave us all it could, the rest we found in the other people whose company we sought. Friends.

That time formed a very wide ring in the tree and a tight part of the friendship web, a web that it still growing.

Thursday, 30 March 2006


I wish I could send my British friends a postcard of the view from the Alex Fraser bridge at night. This is a picture of the bridge that I've half-inched, but you can't see the view from it.

On a Sunday afternoon we usually drive out to Surrey to see Kevin's parents. Surrey here is a city rather than a county. Likewise we live in the city of Richmond, which is not an area of London. Vancouver airport is in Richmond, and I would say that therefore it is like living in Heathrow, except that it's not. We are not overly bothered by aircraft noise - with the exception of some days at the Nature Park - and the area is certainly not heavily built up in the way that London and its suburbs are.
When you fly into Vancouver airport, sometimes the pilot takes a route that comes in low over the water, but often you come in over the city of Richmond and you can see the Fraser river and the main roads that link Richmond with Vancouver. At night, as I have said before, you can make out the illuminated pistes of one of the mountains, Grouse.

Richmond has something in common with Portsmouth, it is built on an island although you wouldn't really know it. Like Portsmouth, it has to be reached by a bridge over water. Richmond is in fact a number of islands, but the largest of these is Lulu. Before all the bridges were built and the place was settled, first nations would come to this island in hollowed out cedar trunks to pick cranberries and blueberries. I believe I am correct in saying that the highest concentration of cranberry cultivation goes on here in Richmond. All the growers have to sell to Ocean Spray, so you can see this as a co-op or a mafia, depending on your point of view.

Coming home from Surrey on a Sunday evening, we have to cross the Alex Fraser bridge. As we head down Nordel Way, we can already see the bridge and the line of car headlights, like bright insects crawling towards and across it. The main supports of the bridge have winking lights on the top, I presume to warn aircraft.
Then we arrive on the bridge and spread below us is the vista that I would like to send a postcard of. Grouse's piste, just as you see from the aircraft, lit up, seems to hang in the sky, stairway to heaven, the lights of Richmond, Vancouver and New Westminster spread out all around us, diamonds on a black velvet cloth. To our left the Fraser river itself, dark, sleeping. Sometimes the smell of cedar lingers over the bridge as it does over other bridges across the Fraser river.

But it's just that moment as we crest the bridge that never fails to get me and I think it's because so many times in the past as I saw the city lights spread out around me I'd have to think, 'and next week I'll be flying out.'

Alex Fraser links Delta and Richmond or New Westminster, other bridges link Richmond and Vancouver. Knight Street bridge is one of these on the east side of the city. When you cross this bridge, you have the mountains directly ahead of you. Again, often the smell of cedar from the paper making. At night the lights of the mountain draw you, but even during the day you feel the gravity of the mountains calling, getting bigger the further you go into Vancouver. Now the trees, laden with blossom line the streets, softening the edges. The houses here are mainly wood construction so the whole place has a different feel to it from cities in Britain.

However many times I had been here before, when I arrived in July, I would still only drive from our house to Richmond city centre on my own. Now I am beginning to know Vancouver more. I can drive downtown, get on the bus and know where to get off. I'm not a complete stranger anymore. Strange still, but not a stranger.
And on a Sunday evening when I see our part of Canada twinkling around me, I know I'll be seeing it again next week.

Wednesday, 29 March 2006

Spring cleaning

"The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms."

Kenneth Grahame, 'The Wind in the Willows'.

God I love spring cleaning. Spring has been teasing us here for a couple of weeks now. One day it will be fabulous, mild, sunny, the chickadees all around singing 'cheeseburger, cheeseburger!' And there is a white-flowered trailing plant covering the trellis of the visitor parking that gives off a scent like frangipani or a scented magnolia. The flower looks like something between a passion flower and a clematis.
Next day it'll be raining again and I'll have to be back in a jacket.

This morning is one of the spring ones, the type you expect at Easter. The hummingbirds are out in the Nature Park, the blueberry bushes have strong, green new growth and buds and the salmonberries are sprouting. This morning, another sure sign of spring, the grass was being cut.

To the north, the mountains, still snow-capped, look clear and majestic. 'Our' mountains, the ones we can name, Seymour, Grouse, Cyprus and then the lions, two peaks that look like sleeping lions lying alongside of one another.

Days like this just make me want to get out and turn soil, or stay in and rummage through stuff that has built up, it makes me want to spray chemicals everywhere, and scrub and wipe and polish, just like the Mole.
We saw a molehill in the Nature Park today on one of the school tours. They're up and at it those moles.

Maybe I need a spring clean, I tend to get dusty and stale during the hibernating months. I could use a de-tox, lose a few pounds, wake up and smell something more than just the coffee. I think that's what spring cleaning is, it's a symbolic ritual really. For mole, who had probably slept through the winter it was part of waking up and starting the year. For us, as a cleaning exercise, let's face it, we clean as we go, but the unburdening of spring cleaning refreshes and awakens us, allows us to see that we can start again.
I want splashes of colour instead of my usual black, and I want to feel my arms weary and my back aching from the exertion of spring cleaning. It's so lovely here on the riverbank.

Tuesday, 28 March 2006


Here's a thing - there is something I have no opinion on - barbecues. Not the kind where you go and eat slightly charred meat in your friend's garden whilst another friend sets fire to her hair and yet another arrives not having eaten all day and the first friend, who really really knows what she's talking about, you can trust me on this says to the third friend,
'Don't smoke that dope because you always always go white and pass out,' and he does anyway, goes white and looks like he might faint and then the first friend who really really knows what she's talking about tries to get him to eat a sweet and he refuses and then throws up in the street. No, not that kind of barbecue at all, I mean the apparatus that you cook on.

A couple of years back I used to have an opinion on barbecues. My opinion was that they should hold charcoal. The British barbecue is about the charcoal and the summer and the messing around in the garden for the whole afternoon and the smoke getting in the eyes until you've had so much to drink it doesn't matter anymore. Yes, the first time you smell those charcoals, that's summer.

When I first ate barbecue here I didn't get it. What, I wondered, was the point of having a barbecue without the fuss and the charcoal flavour. I imagine I wondered this loud enough for everyone to hear, that has been known to happen.
The answer is that it's a very good method of cooking and one that Canadians indulge in all year round. And then I got totally used to that and I don't think of it as being one versus the other, I see them as two separate activities.

So now we need a new barbecue. This isn't as simple as buying a disposable table top one from Sainsburys.
We went to Rona (like Homebase) and looked at a number of them. They have different levels and add-on bits, extra burners, shelves, cutting boards, covers. Fortunately, I don't need to have an opinion, I can leave that to Kevin who is going to do the cooking on it anyway and who knows what is good and what ain't.

Whilst I was in Rona, I learned a new French word. Not because there are wandering jongleurs who hang out in DIY shops feeding you a word for the day, not even stray voyageurs, no, simply everything in Canada has to be labelled in both languages. Thus I discovered when looking for sandpaper that the French word for sanding is ponçage. I haven't even bothered to check whether this is just the Québecois word for it, nope, I have just taken this word into my vocabulary. Fancy a bit of ponçage? Doing it yourself? Why not try ponçage? Rough or smooth ponçage? Oh my goodness, in this case, a word is worth a thousand words. I wonder if you can barbecue and do a bit of ponçage at the same time. In Rona though, you do at least get free popcorn with your ponçage. Hot and salty.

What a good thing for the French that whilst I have no opinion on barbecues, I am willing to take time out from my busy schedule to evaluate words in their language, and be most proactive about promoting them.
Ponçage - I wonder if M. Chirac does it, what he wears and where he does it.

Monday, 27 March 2006


During the time before, when I would come over to Canada, I used to watch a lot of the Food Network Canada. It's not that we don't have a food channel in Britain, but it used to be on one of the very high numbers channels and only available at certain times. The shows were always ones which had been on BBC or Channel 4 already. I also had no great interest in watching it since I relied very heavily on Sainsburys and Marks and Sparks to do my cooking for me.

Kevin likes to cook and he is very good at it so it seems reasonable that he would watch the food channel, thus, so did I. I saw Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson's programmes for the first time over here. There are many other great food shows, there's one that is all about barbecuing which will be back in April.

Our very favourite TV chef is Alton Brown, an American with a lot of charisma. I hesitated to use that word because just maybe it smacks of evangelism. Not so with Alton, he's very down to earth, he's funny and explains the science behind food and cooking. He is also a man after my own heart in that he is not a fan of the single use appliance or gadget. Anything that makes it into Alton's kitchen has to work hard. So for example, Alton has a melon baller but I have yet to see him use it to ball melons, but it's in use all the time.

A show that Kevin likes but I don't, is Iron Chef. I can no more sit and watch competitive cooking than I can sport. There's too much time wasted with discussing and repeating everything to build up the tension and not enough time showing us how it's done.

We both, however, like Michael Smith. He is a Canadian chef and one of his series is 'Chef at Home'. Michael's home just happens to be Prince Edward Island (PEI) and his house overlooks sloping gardens that lead down to the sea. Spectacular.
Yesterday, Michael decided he was going to make some fusion recipes. This immediately made me less interested. My experience of fusion cooking in restaurants has been that it is rather forced. I think that fusion in cooking, as in life, tends to happen naturally, like the Québecois Poutine, french fries and curds with gravy on the top, now don't tell me anyone sat about inventing that. It just happened somehow.

As it turned out, this was one of the best shows I have seen, I should have trusted Mikey. His starter was a variant on sushi. I find sushi rather boring, we had a time in Britain when it was big, but then it died back, fun for a while, but then no-one wanted it more than once in a while. And in fact, it would make an interesting starter occasionally, so long as there is something that isn't just..well, more sushi to follow. Michael Smith made a chick pea mash and rolled it in smoked salmon and then seaweed. How perfect! He made some amazing salmon fishcakes which were more like burgers and an interesting salad with rice noodles and a dressing of peanut butter, marmelade and soy sauce. He made an iced tea with maple syrup - interesting combo of flavours, but may be a bit too syrupy for my taste, but his pudding, coconut tarts with chocolate and coconut cream sound just divine. I'm not sure what his fusion is here, but it works for me because I consider anything that dilutes chocolate down from being just...well, chocolate is fusion.

Michael Smith always makes it all look easy. He is a very laid back chef, he gives you the impression that you could actually create some of the things he makes in his kitchen, in yours, but he certainly got past my initial distrust of fusion. And his house and garden are sooooo lovely.

Sunday, 26 March 2006

Mothering Sunday

Today is the fourth Sunday in Lent and therefore Mothering Sunday. I have received flowers from my children and was awoken by a phone call from two of them - the clocks went back last night in Britain and I'm sure they wouldn't realise that they don't go back here until next weekend.

I'm not going to talk about my own mother, as she comes up quite regularly in what I write, but about the Church, because that's what mothering Sunday is about. People were to go once a year not to the local or daughter church, but to the mother church, the main one in their parish and this also meant that families were reunited because often children were sent to work away from home.

In Britain the Church of England is the established church and being British we contantly debate whether this is a good thing. But good or bad, it is part of our national identity. You don't have to even believe in God to think of yourself as a christian.

Now, living in a country where there is no established church, I look on what we have in Britain as a very good thing. The Queen is the head of the Church of England and that makes me feel comfortable. Schools are obliged to (but rarely do these days) provide a daily act of communal worship.

When I was at school, we sat every morning in the school hall and listened to readings from the Bible and sang hymns. We prepared whole school many-part hymns for sepcial occasions that made your heart soar. We studied Religious Instruction (mostly now referred to as RE) and whilst RE nowadays is all about comparing different religions, for us it was understanding the Bible and the Holy lands. How many maps of Palestine and Jordan we drew I wouldn't like to guess. We studied the Patriarchs, the Judges, the Kings. We were told we needed this to understand the underpinning of our laws and our literature.

The established church allows us to feel comfortable and confident. When Tony Blair was asked in a recent interview whether he had prayed about the decision to go into Iraq he said that as a christian he prayed about everything that was important, but that was personal and he wasn't going to talk about it. There is no need for Bible thumping, there is no point to win or score.

We see the Queen and the Royal Family going to church on important dates in the church calendar. You might say, 'so we don't have to' and in an odd way that is true, we don't have to prove that we are a christian nation because the Head of the Church does that for us. So when people do go, it is for the right and very personal reasons.

In 'Little Britain' there is a sketch where Andy insists on being dressed as baby Jesus, his wheelchair disguised as a crib and from this comical place he does one of the Christmas readings. In Britain we can and frequently do make fun of our religion, of vicars and priests and of the faithful and our rituals. We can do that because it is such a firm ground. The christian faith isn't going to wither and die because Father Ted makes a joke about God or the vicar of Dibley has sheep in the church.

I like that Christianity came to the islands by stealth, not bloodshed, it bound itself to the Celtic traditions that were already there. Christian festivals and even stories are really pagan ones. The spirituality that was already in the people was used to establish a new faith from the east.
I am horrified at the bloodshed that came with schism, but I believe the outcome was good, a reformed church that allowed philosophical debate and scientific discovery to go unhindered, that allowed people's potential to be fulfilled instead of stunted.

The comfort of establishment means that the faiths of the British don't have to compete. It is more than simple tolerance, other faiths are embraced. At my last school, we all shared the end of Ramadan Eid of the muslim children and they shared Christmas with us.

I can remember the beginnings of my own religious education. When we were very little, Amanda and I would walk, hand in hand and dressed in our Sunday best, round to Granny Manns' ground floor flat. She lived in council accomodation for the elderly, but it was independent living, she had her own flat, she wasn't our granny, just - well everyone's. In her living room she had a budgerigar in a cage. She was old and wrinkly but had superb posture. She would put on her hat - I don't believe we ever saw her outside without a hat - and walk all of us neighbourhood children in a crocodile to St. Andrew's church. We were allowed into the main part of the service to begin with, we knelt and prayed and we sang from 'Hymns Ancient and Modern', knowing which one from the slotted wooden numbers at the front of the church. Before the adults were prepared for Communion we went to Sunday school. On Mother's day we would make little posies for our mothers. Then we went back and met up with Granny Manns who walked us all back again, standing in the middle of the main road, arms spread like a police constable directing traffic, whilst we all crossed.

Once when my father returned from sea, he brought me a King James's Bible. The pages were edged with gold leaf and there were coloured pictures of Jesus's passion and the money-lenders being thrown out of the temple. There were also pictures of olive trees and parts of the Holy Lands.

I love the British lackadaisical approach to Christianity. I love that our God has grown with us. I love that Christianity informs our ethics without us even thinking about it. And I revere that people have given their lives so that we can feel comfortable and playful with our faith.

I love the quiet of our churches. To be able to just be in a cool stone building where generations upon generations have worshipped before and repeat the words of the litany like a mantra and pray inside my own head. To take communion and for it to mean communion with everyone, not just other Christians, and to not ever have to explain unless I want to. That's what I love about religious life in Britain.

The church is established. Christmas is Christmas, Easter is Easter, Whitsun is Whitsun, no-one needs to waste their time arguing, instead they can go about their own spirituality in their own way.

Saturday, 25 March 2006

Women Travellers

This is a picture of our lovely city taken from a window in the Vancouver museum. Yesterday, we went on a field trip to the museum from the Nature Park. I hadn't thought about why we would do this before we went. The museums and parks in the Greater Vancouver area rely heavily on the work done by volunteers and this meeting was about volunteers getting together. It was a nice idea.

The first exhibition that we saw was about women travellers. As far as I could make out, this was based on the work of the person who was giving the talk and who had researched and written a book on the subject. I'm sure she was a good writer, but she wasn't an inspiring speaker. She told us that the majority of women travellers during the nineteenth century were British. The reason she gave for this was that Britain was a small island and people were perhaps driven to leave.

Later, I suggested to her that it was more to do with imperialism and that because Britain had gone out and set up stall in so many other countries, perhaps people felt comfortable out there in the world. She said that that might be true were these parts of the British Empire that the women were travelling to, but they were going to other places. Yes, said I, but my point was that ....

Lori's thought was that British education and news reporting had always been more outward looking. The author seemed to be stuck on the idea that Britain was an overcrowded island. I pointed out that nowadays, it is Australians who seem to globe-hop the most, they seem to need walkabout. Brits generally do it because they have a specific reason. She was still smiling at us, but her smile now looked more like a petrified rictus.

It was interesting however and there was a lot of knowledge gained from these women travellers, for example observations about natural history and anthropology. The author became very excited as we came to a particular part of the exhibit because only women could see the heron. This puzzled me, but I was willing to believe that the heron was a sacred bird that only women were allowed to gaze on in certain societies. Perhaps the heron represented secret women's things.

The room that the women travellers went into to view the heron was most luxurious, baroque carvings, intricate metalwork and rich silk hangings, beautiful colours.
Ok, so eventually I worked out that she wasn't talking about a heron, but the harem. We tend to pronounce this 'hareem' I suppose she was saying 'herum'. Yeah, see, I can understand that being able to go into the harem was interesting, but frankly, I thought the sacred heron had more going for it.

To what extent am I a woman traveller? Not very much I don't think, not in the way that we were thinking about them yesterday. I'm not a pioneer. And it occupies me very greatly that to some extent I have let those women down. Not just the travellers, but the women who fought for our rights. My mother's generation did not have the opportunities we have today, when they married they didn't even have the right to work. I know there is still a long, long way to go until we achieve true equality and achieve it the world over.

I had worked hard to build my career. Out of all my children, I think that Austen got the worst deal and the best deal. When he was young I was working in poorly paid jobs, studying at the same time. But he didn't have to share my time with anyone for a long time, and he had a close relationship with my parents.

By the time I had the others, I had my Bachelor's degree so I was able to go into teaching and earn more. When I left England, I was head of Department with a Master's degree. And I have chosen a course that was not a choice for my mother's generation, it was what they were stuck with. But it is a gamble, I have taken a risk and it wasn't forced on me as it was on them. If I fail, I've not just lost status and earnings, I've let them down and that more than anything else, bothers me.

Friday, 24 March 2006

Film, politics, milestone

We saw a wonderful Brit film on DVD the other night, made in 2002, but on our DVD rental shop's 'New this week' shelf - this week.
It was what you expect from the best of British, or put it this way, it was an Auntie Brenda film - Brenda Blethyn, not my auntie but you know, two degrees of separation. Here it was called 'Undertaking Betty' but the UK name was 'Plots with a View'. Superb film, Auntie Brenda and the splendid Alfred Molina, not to mention Christopher Walken, and surprisingly, Lee Evans who was not horrible (though I appreciate that only Brit friends will understand that) and who sported the most disgusting pair of false teeth, wove a gentle, amusing and clever story that kept us transfixed and in which all the twists and turns resolved to our satisfaction. Perfick.

Still on the subject of films, an actor whom I have long admired, Anthony Sher, gave a wonderfully written, interesting exegesis of gay cinema. Why do I love Sher so much? He spellbound me with his portrayal of Richard the third at the National Theatre, thinking about it, must have been over 20 years ago now. Why was the article so wonderful? Because it was well written, because he had the exact same take on 'Brokeback Mountain' and 'Capote' as me and because he developed his account in an absorbing way and lastly, because he mentioned Derek Jarman on whom I was fixated because he allowed us to travel with him as he moved towards his own death, I found that selfless and I felt bereft when he died.

I was so pleased to hear that the two Canadian and one British hostage in Iraq were free. And I was desperately sad that the rescue came too late for the American hostage, Tom Fox. As soon as I heard the words 'rescue mission' I knew absolutely in my bones that this was a British operation, so I was very surprised when I watched the TV news and saw a US military spokesperson talking about how they had orchestrated it. Eventually mention was made of Canadian special forces being involved. Then I went to the Guardian and, well, whaddya know, it was indeed led by the SAS. I don't know how I knew this, a gut feeling probably based on the years and years of everyone I ever knew who went into the armed forces having to do a tour in Northern Ireland and that was a tough 'peacekeeping' tour. Of the finest armed forces in the world, the SAS are the elite, and we expect miracles from them, and sometimes, as yesterday, we get them.

Another great piece of news yesterday was that ETA had declared a permanent cessation of hostilities. The terrorism that has just been part of the background of our lives. No, not that I have ever lived in Spain, but many British people can empathise with the tension of living in a country haunted by terrorists. The fear that grips you every time you see any kind of bag unattended. The underlying uncertainty of being in a public place. One of the Guildford pubs that was bombed in the 70s was a pub that we used to drink in. That fear goes away and then as soon as something like the atrocities of 11/09/01 happen, it all comes flooding back. Post, parcels, paperbins, cars, trains, all were used for planting bombs.

We had a morning of spring again yesterday, mild, the big theatrical thermometer that is one of the props for the 'Signs of Spring' educational programme, registering 11. The sun was at its most beautiful, watery, platinum. The chickadees were playing the mating game as loudly as they know how. How amazing that I am on this other continent with different plants and animals. I learned about First Nations and their historical use of plants in the morning and in the afternoon, Nature Detectives. I loved every minute. Today we are going to the Vancouver museum and I'm looking forward to that too.

A friend of a very good friend turns 60 today and although she has never met me, I wish her a very, very happy birthday. My friend and I discussed this a bit because her friend was feeling a bit down about it. One of those milestones when we take stock. I remember clearly the 30 milestone because I felt as though I had come of age. In my own head I was now someone to be taken seriously. Honestly, that's the only one of my own so far that I can remember, but I do remember my mother turning 60. She too was depressed about it. For her it coincided with the development of diabetes and a return visit from the lymphoma that she had kicked in her 40's. I think too that there was an element for her of moving into old age. And yet to me, even before she died in her mid 70's, she was not an old woman, she was a sick one, but had she not been, she would have still been moving through middle age.
Another friend whose 60th birthday I remember was Glenda's. She is a most amazing person. She was, as I had come to expect from her, quite determined to celebrate that she had reached this milestone. She and a group of friends went on the London Eye and drank Champagne. Glenda embraced this life experience as she embraced everything. In a bizarre twist of fate, she has a partner now who is from Vancouver Island and they come here in the summer and have a boat here. When I came over last July, I was on the same flight as Glenda which I discovered at Gatwick when we both turned up to check in. Small, small world.

Will and Grace is now in something like its 157th series but the writing and acting is still so sharp. I had a half an hour long belly laugh last night. Great stuff, classic stuff, we'll miss it when it's gone.

Thursday, 23 March 2006

Ahhhh.... Bisto!

One of the things I brought back with me from blighty this last trip was a package of Bisto gravy granules. Not as exciting as custard I agree, not even as necessary, Kevin and I between us have made some pretty damn good gravy, but there's something about seeing that box in the cupboard and knowing that Bisto gravy is only the boil of a kettle away.

I think to some extent, British cooking has done a full circle, we went through a time of ignoring the humble gravy boat for more exotic sauces, but now it's back there in its rightful place, sometimes there are tomato and mascarpone days, sometimes korma or jalfrezi days and sometimes you just want gravy.

Back in simpler times, when I was like seven, there was a very limited array of sauces. You had the bottled ones, HP and tomato, maybe a dash of Worcestershire, then there was cod in cheese or butter sauce and gravy. Food in our house was definately simple. Unlike my friend Karen's mum who used to make the kind of dishes you had to use recipes for, and who knew what a garlic clove was, my mum gave us fish fingers, cod balls and always roast on a Sunday, a rotation of chicken, lamb, beef. You can see why gravy came in handy.

I wasn't bullied at school, I was reasonably happy there, but school dinners at primary school were nightmare territory. Flat meat. Meat pie, steak and kidney pudding with a suet crust. Stew. Boiled cabbage and cold gravy. The best you could hope for were the ice cream scoops of mashed potato.

My mother's generation had lived through the privations of the war and so had little sympathy for my refusal to eat meat pie and stew, although she didn't try to feed me kidney, my reaction to that was far more immediate, at the smell of it I would retch and I could do nothing about that.

Then we got freezers, now we were sentenced to eat ice cream for pudding. And meals came to include curry pies. Just curry, generic, basically cumin and fenugreek, maybe a little chilli but not much. Then there were Findus crispy pancakes, not pancakes as we know them Spock, but greasy little pockets of meat and peas or cheese. But still the same rota of chicken, lamb, beef for Sunday lunch.

And through it all...ahhh...Bisto. Not the easy gravy granules of today, but a rectangular box containing a mixture (I imagine) of cornflour, seasoning and browning. There was still a great deal of scope for lumpiness when mixed.
On TV the ads had people drawn by the visible smell of Bisto gravy.
In competition was the oxo family, Katie and husband... Phil? We saw them grow up, always crumbling oxo into everything, over the years, as with my mother's cooking, Katie's repertoire increased, you could use oxo in spag bol, in other European favourites and now Phil (or whoever) was doing some of the cooking. The children grew up and left home. Katie and husband were always loving, flriting with each other, no doubt kept together by their use of and love for oxo cubes.

Both oxo and Bisto have branched out in recent years, offering a range of products, different gravies for different meats and oxo does a range of granules for other sauces.
I don't sell it well I know. The savoury smell of Bisto floating like an unseen mist to wherever I am sitting and making me say 'ahhhh...Bisto' as it brushes past my nose. Those little gravy pixies with the spoon that was bigger than them, were they related to the rice crispies elves I wonder?
Even my own children, brought up with a much wider range of food and recipes, fight over the gravy, there's never enough because someone always overflows their plate with it.

Last night we just had chicken and veggies with Bisto gravy, Kevin likes to season chicken when he cooks it, but sometimes I just want it plain so that I can have the gravy.
Funny what you miss when it's not in your cupboard.

Wednesday, 22 March 2006


Yesterday I was surprised, but also pleased, when Kevin handed me the local free sheet and said,
'You're in the paper.' I thought he was making a joke about an advert with a girl whose hair was spiked up all over the place, but in fact a letter I had written was printed.

The subject of my letter had been an article about a local man who was possibly going to be fined for taking his bike into his own flat. This was his third bike and the other two had been stolen.

One thing I need to explain here for friends in Britain is the idea of condos and stratas. But how to explain? Imagine a small housing estate. When the houses and flats are finished and sold off, the estate itself is held together as a little community with its own council, the strata. The strata council imposes some rules and takes responsibility for community areas, such as flower beds and the exteriors of the units. There is usually a community building such as a gym or a clubhouse.

Now, the man in the article was being stopped and fined by his strata council from taking his bike into his own flat because it caused dirt to be trekked in, however they didn't have the same concerns over pushchairs and motorised scooters.

When I was in Portsmouth, the only safe place to keep my bike was in my classroom, so every day I had to bring it up the stairs, and oddly, I had to carry it, so no more dirt was brought in by my bike than by other people's shoes. Other colleagues who cycled had to do the same thing. We were in a similar position to the man in the article, there was nowhere secure outside to lock our bikes.

Here in Richmond and in Vancouver, there are quite a number of cycleways, but it is not a common occurrence to see people cycling. A number of Kevin's co-workers cycle in, but they tend to be the very athletic types who travel a long distance and still face the same problem about where to leave their bikes when at work.

Whilst I was aware of bike theft happening in Portsmouth, here it seems to be rampant, which is quite bizarre for a city where so few people actually use bikes.

The great thing about cycling in Pompey was that people of all shapes, sizes, ages and levels of fitness did it. And of course, there were also the postal workers and some police who used bikes to get around so it was much more ingrained as part of the culture just as it is in other parts of Europe.

One day when I was driving here, I pause to blush, I witnessed an ederly Sikh man, cycling in the cycle lane and being followed, in the cycle lane, by a motorist who was beeping him continuously.
I have seen cars and trucks parked in the cycle lanes.
It can certainly be argued that distances are greater here, for me to cycle to downtown Vancouver for example would perhaps be the equivalent of me cycling from Southsea to Havant, but then why don't people who live in the city of Vancouver cycle? It is a rare sight.

I think that attitudes need to change. The City councils encourage cycling, but they don't put enough into it. I feel here that when something is badly received, people back off. One way for example of encouraging cycling and discouraging theft is to provide cheap bikes to be used and returned free to any bike bank in the city. Another way is to subsidise fold-up commuter bikes.

I was pleased to see that one item in Gordon Brown's budget yesterday was an extra tax on the highest fuel-using cars. This is simply another step towards a totally graded system of car taxation based on fuel consumption. More measures like these need to be introduced here too, to discourage the use of larger cars and Satan's Utility Vehicles. I am proud to say that our own car is a small, fuel efficient one and we always walk when we can or take the bus or skytrain when possible.

Canada, and Vancouver in particular, are very green, both literally and metaphorically, but..... when this beautiful city can be unfavourably compared with Portsmouth on an issue, it's time to sit up and take stock.

Tuesday, 21 March 2006

Signs of spring

I thought today was the first day of spring but in fact the vernal equinox happened at 13.30 yesterday afternoon. I'm not entirely sure what that means but apparently this is so.

When I got to the Nature Park today to be shown the 'Signs of Spring' educational programme, it seems that one of the park's birds, the rufous hummingbird, had appeared bang on cue and so had its groupies, a clutch of Taiwanese twitchers.

And yesterday and Sunday, it did in fact feel very springlike. I went out without a jacket, had the windows down in the car, the sun was shining and warm, doors were open, daffodils and crocuses were smiling up, forsythia was blooming and in general I felt quite expansive and sunny myself. I was also visiting a friend in a part of Vancouver where the pretty residential streets were all lined with trees in blossom.

Today, the first full day of spring, the sky is overcast and it is cold, a few drops of rain appeared on the windscreen on the way back from the nature park and had it been sleet, I wouldn't have been surprised - although I'll admit to the possibility of auto-suggestion here since I know my friend Ree in Illinois has had sleet and was expecting snow.

But the signs were there in the park. There was birdsong, garter snakes had been seen, there were buds on many of the bushes and the blueberry plants had striking new growth. The dark green of winter was being replaced by emerald. By the end of the trail session I was able to identify two of the birds, a chickadee and a song sparrow, oh, no three in fact because we saw a robin. Quite, quite different from our native European robin redbreast, this robin was more russet coloured, not so pretty and bigger, less like a fat little man wearing a waistcoat.
I remembered several of the plants and trees from last week and felt pleased with myself yesterday when I was able to identify a hemlock tree for my friend. I also know what a cranberry plant looks like.

Yet another sign of spring yesterday was that lads at the school opposite were wearing those long shorts, I'll bet they were back in jeans today.

Well, the ditty 'spring has sprung, the grass has riz, I wonder where the birdies iz' is not true for me today, cos I know where the birdies is.....AND I know what they're up to, and THAT is what spring is all about.

Monday, 20 March 2006

You are what you eat

One of my favourite self -improvement shows is 'You are what you eat'. It's a British programme but I think I had only seen a couple of episodes when I was in England. It's also very typical of a British show. Unhealthy people, generally overweight, subject themselves to public humiliation at the hands of a diminutive Scots woman, Gillian McKeith. She's a tartare. She makes them show us their wobbly bits and then she examines their poo. She is very interested in their poo. Like the all-seeing God that we all fear, you feel that Gillian might turn up one day on our doorstep demanding a poo sample. This is how Gillian knows what you are through what you eat. Too sloppy, not good enough, too smelly, you're in for a roasting, wrong colour, not up to snuff.

After roundly condemning her victims from their poo sample - I wonder if St. Peter uses this method - she loads up tables with everything they ate the previous week. Seeing it all laid out like that, piles upon piles of chips and cakes and burgers and general slop, the person becomes penitent, begging Gillian to save them. And as with any salvation, the first few steps are the worst. No more pastry, sweets and beer-swilling, instead seeds and pulses and mountains of veggies.

Now the best amusement is to be had from the faces of the little fat kids as they are denied their life-sapping crap. They carp and moan. You feel sorry for the mums who are having to deny themselves and put up with the whingeing from their spoilt spawn. And when occasionally you get a child who joins in cheerfully and says, 'well, this is going to be good for us,' you want to give them a pat on the back.

But by the end of the eight week period, as their bellies have shrunk, their halitosis cured, spots, fatigue and depression all banished and they have energy once more, they welcome Gillian back like born again evangelists opening their arms to their saviour.

It would be nice to think that Gillian could cure the entire nation one by one, but alas, the task is too great, her best hope is that many will see her programme and convert. Jamie Oliver took on a similar task when he changed the nation's school dinners, but one feels that these miracles are small inroads.

This week we have seen the Canadian Health authority announcing that the officially recommended diet contains too many calories and might encourage Canadians to become overweight. I have to say that here on the West Coast it doesn't look like a big problem. I can remember visiting my cousin in Toronto in 1979 and being struck by how many seriously overweight people you saw. I'm not talking the extra pounds we all think we have that make our nice clothes not fit us, or the extra poundage of middle age, I'm talking Dan and Roseanne and in very young people.

It's an odd thing in some ways. I would say there isn't much difference between Canadians where I live and British people in the South of England. But here, people are able to eat out more, and unless you go to the fancier restaurants, things are frequently served with huge piles of chips. People drink beer more here, I would say that it is like drinking fizzy drinks in Britain, where we would go to the fridge and get a can of lemonade, many people here might get a beer. People don't walk or cycle here as much because the distances between anything are greater and there is less public transport. And yet people don't look much different. But of course the other side of Gillian's message wasn't just about weight, it's about health, and here on the west coast, Canadians live longer than anywhere else in the country. So there must be some factor that I'm missing.

I'm making generalisations of course from some very general observations. When I was in England last month, I felt as though I ate non-stop because I was eating everything I had missed, and yet I lost weight, but again, probably because of the walking.
My British friend Karen pointed out last week that at our age, social events tend to centre around eating and I think she is right. You allow yourself to eat things when out socially that you wouldn't eat at home.

I haven't gotten to the bottom (no pun intended) of this yet, but all I can say is that if you are what you eat, then I am currently a jar of marmite. I must be low on B-vitamins I think, because marmite is definitely my mate. I'm sure Gillian would approve, I'm working on developing an imaginary Gillian who pops up at times of temptation and says 'just say no' in her Scottish accent.

Yes, I think it might work.

Sunday, 19 March 2006

I, Immigrant

I don't really think of myself as an immigrant because we share the Queen and so forth, but technically that's what I will be at some point.

Britain and at least this part of Canada have wildly different attitudes to immigration. In Britain, immigration has always been and remains a dirty word. I think this is due to two main factors. Throughout a large part of the twentieth century, immigration ran alongside population explosion. Furthermore, the notion of immigrants is generally associated in British culture with racial difference. What I mean by this is that had we opted for Kevin coming to Britain rather than my coming to Canada, he would not have been viewed as an immigrant.

West coast Canadians have a very open attitude towards immigrants. I think partly they are very used to it, as I have said before, Kevin's family are fifth generation Canadian and it wouldn't be possible to have many more generations than that without actually being first nations - native Canadian. On the immigration sponsorship form that Kevin had to fill in, there was no option for someone who was born in Canada, the lawyer told us to write it in.

Canadians know that the future of their country's economy is dependent upon immigration. And very soon Europeans are going to have to face up to that same fact.

Not long ago the birthrates for the European union countries were published in the Guardian because Angela Merkel was worried about the German figures. The birthrate needed to sustain a flourishing economy is 2.1. The German figure if I remember correctly was standing at 1.37. Every single one of the EU countries were below 2, including the traditionally catholic ones.

Germany and Britain have had different approaches to immigrant workers. Britain has for the most part refused to give way to pressure to segregate workers, for example by providing schools in the languages of ethnic minorities.
Germany on the other hand have had policies of providing precisely that, on the understanding that the workers will return home when no longer needed. They withhold the currency of language and thus stop the ability of immigrants to rise economically above a certain level.

When I was doing my MA, we had visiting speakers from the educational systems of other European countries to explain policies in those countries to us. The speaker from Spain outlined a barrio culture where women specifically were denied access to the language of the country so that they had no control over their own lives.

The population of Britain is expected to rise to 65 million over the next ten years, but this will be solely as a result of immigration. In spite of our bad attitude, it was ever thus, we are a mongrel nation.
Canada, with half the population of little island Britain, is already struggling and must increase immigration, the beauty of which is that to a certain extent you can control who you let into a country.

At the school where I worked in Portsmouth, we had quite a few asylum seekers, more, it turned out, than any of us realised.
Two of the girls whom I taught were Kurds, one from Iraq, one via Syria. The Iraqi Kurd was attacked in the corridor because she was Iraqi. Attempts to explain to the kids who attacked her that this was like doing the same thing to a German Jew who had escaped Hitler during the second world war, fell on semi-deaf ears.
As a staff we were given the task of explaining the difference to the students between illegal immigrants and asylum seekers.

The school, as all schools in Britain now must, had a citizenship co-ordinator, a very committed colleague who prepared a package of teaching materials for us all and a period was scheduled for the school to be off timetable.
In spite of this, even some members of staff couldn't really see the difference.

I could not tell you why our two Kurdish refugees were treated differently by the state, but they were.
Y, the Iraqi girl, maybe because of her early experiences at the school, did not play well with others. For some reason which even now I could not explain, towards the end of her time with us, mine was the only subject in which she was flourishing and I was a lone voice speaking out for her remaining in the top ability band. I was on strong ground. In the British education system we were heavy with data and everything was data driven. We had clear data to show that you needed a higher CAT score (Cognitive Ability Test) to achieve in Modern Foreign Languages than in any other subject, thus if she were achieving in my subject, she couldn't be put down. I became the only subject teacher that she wasn't setting out to aggravate, on the contrary, she would write down extra questions to ask me at the end of lessons.
But to the best of my knowledge, she wasn't being threatened with repatriation.

The other girl, L, was always under threat. She came to us with virtually no English. She was, contrary to school policy, put in a lower set. In that set I taught her French. She quickly acquired English and was moved to the top band. Now I was teaching her German.
She opted for German in year 10, and she was then in the class I loved more than any I had ever taught in my teaching career. When I knew I was going to resign and come to Canada it was harder to tell them than my own kids.
I had made the decision that instead of teaching them in two ability sets, we would teach them in gender sets, and I believe this was one of the best management decisions I ever made.
Teaching that group was what you go into teaching for, I looked forward to their lessons, they would work hard and over and above, they had me on their MSN and would e-mail me homework. We worked those two sets hard and they responded. It was just great to have the privilege to teach them.

Then one morning, at 5am, L's family had a visit from the police. They were taken to a detention centre close to Gatwick airport. We didn't hear about this at first, to L's teachers she was just absent, not unexpected, her mother was seriously ill.
The family were only, allowed to contact a religious advisor, no-one else. L and her sister (their mother still did not speak anough English), when asked who they wanted to speak to, instead of asking for a muslim, asked for a Jehovah's Witness. In Portsmouth, they had received assistance from Witnesses, themselves a group who had experienced persecution in Hitler's Germany.

This was the way that the school found out they were being detained. We were utterly shell-shocked. I can still remember the moment when a story became reality. One of our most beloved and hard-working pupils had been taken by our own government's agents and was to be returned to a country where her brothers and father had disappeared without trace. Where most likely they would be tortured and killed. Shock. And then the school moved into action. MPs were lobbied, TV, radio, newspapers were contacted. A couple of days before the scheduled deportation, L was returned to us, our Headteacher was allowed to go and collect the family from detention. I remember L coming round to the classrooms to show she was back, thin as a rake, the family had been on hunger strike during the detention. The reality was that it was at that point, the poor state of L's mother's health which had stayed the detention, but it was the actions of the school that made the Home Office aware of this.

Even now, although L and her family continue to live in Britain, they only have a temporary reprieve. The school made it a high profile case, but by now I would imagine that none of us would know the fate of L and the remains of her family had we not acted.

Immigration is a hot potato, no doubt about it, but soon, we are going to have to have some global joined-up thinking about this. During the whole L case, I was both immensely proud and horribly let-down by my colleagues and by my country. I understand that each case is a complex one, but I deplore lazy thinking and I equally will not accept that just because it is difficult, it is impossible, but some pretty ingrained attitudes need to be changed.

Saturday, 18 March 2006

Nowt so queer as folk.

Another disjointed blog I'm afraid.

I should have made clear yesterday when talking about corned beef that corned beef here is an edible foodstuff, not like the disgusting thing that comes out of a can and is used only by really desperate boy scouts stuck on Mount Snowden in Britain. Girl guides would have planned better.

This morning I received an e-mail from the Mayor of London thanking me for taking the trouble to write to him. From the e-mail it was clear this wasn't an automated response but an actual reply from Ken Livingstone himself. Should you wish to refresh your memory on why I wrote to him, this is the link. I'm mightily impressed with this. You may also remember that I e-mailed Rob Feenie's restaurant in Vancouver back in December to ask him whether the veal on his menu was ethically reared. Still waiting.

So moving on, going to the Nature Park this week has interfered with my French news watching and thus with my knowledge of what is going on in the world. Until.... I discovered that I could watch the entire newscast online from the TV5 website. Then I discovered that I could also watch the news in German from the 'Der Spiegel' website. And then.... I found that I could watch News at Ten from the BBC website. Such riches.

Now, if Sainsburys would kindly agree to deliver to Richmond BC I'd be like a pig in clover and could get on with my masterplan. One of the things I'd like Sainsburys to deliver would be Crazy Jack's organic apricots. Apricots are one of my favourite fruits, but Crazy Jacks are the sweetest most apricoty tasting apricots on the planet. They are organic and dried without chemicals, so they are a very dark colour, almost black. Compare this with some dried mangos we bought recently. Now a mango is a very sweet fruit to start off with and yet these were preserved with sugar. How can Crazy Jack dry apricots that taste divine with no sugar and no chemicals and yet mangos need both? Who knows, who really cares, just buy Crazy Jack's if you live in the UK because you can.

On TV the other night, we were watching the sitcom, 'Four Kings'. I quite like this show. One of the characters corrected his girlfriend on her use of less and fewer. I couldn't believe it, my own pet grammar peeve. Yesss! Bonded, he'd better not do anything annoying now.

I have seen four films recently on DVD. 'Being Julia' was interesting, it was a Canadian/British film plus Annette Benning. Without the amazing cast it would have been nothing but with.... Miriam Margolyes, Juliet Stevenson, Bruce Greenwood, Jeremy Irons and Michael Gambon it was a treat. To just see the craft of acting demonstrated by this cast was like having a table of all your favourite foods set out in front of you.

North Country was a film I had been wanting to see. It was the story of the successful prosecution of a sexual harassment case in the States in 1984. The story was absorbing and needs telling and re-telling. Although those of us in the workforce in the 70s and 80s and of course before that didn't necessarily suffer all the things portrayed here in this film, I would wager that there are few women who have not been subjected to the general discriminations that underlie the story. Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand were as ever indomitable. A story well told by good actors.

The 40-year-old virgin, well I hesitated when renting it, but in fact it was very funny. I loved the three co-workers who become a main part of the story, they were nicely done without the truly awful frat humour you have to suffer in some comedies. Catherine Keener was wonderful as the love interest, but for me it was Jane Lynch who shone. What range she has, amazing comedy acting here, but just as skilled as Tina's pushy lawyer in the L-Word.

Lastly, we finally watched 'Walk the Line' the film about Johnny Cash's rise to fame. It has received a lot of praise and hyperbole. Sadly, as I have often stated, I have a very low boredom threshold, thankfully I wasn't in the cinema because reading your boredom back-up book in the cinema is generally frowned upon. I found it duller than actually watching paint dry.

On Thursday we went from Richmond Nature Park to look at a bog in West Vancouver. I have really felt quite privileged to be freely given the time of people who know so much about the ecology of the area and who are willing to share it. I am finding out so much about how different the flora and fauna are here from Europe. There is just so much to see in a dynamic eco-system like the bogs we have around Vancouver. The birds are different, you just casually see crows and hawks chasing each other around the sky, although to be fair, even Lori and Joanne were pretty excited about that one. The plants are different, all the species of ferns and fungus, the trees, I didn't even know there was a tree called Hemlock.
What isn't different is the ridiculous behaviour of people. In the nature park in Richmond, people aren't allowed to bring their dogs. Here in Camosun, not much can be done to stop them. As at home, people are supposed to scoop their poochie's poop. Some do, some don't. But then we found a bag of dog poo just abandoned. This seems worse somehow than not picking it up in the first place. So presumably, people come along in their SUVs (Satan's Utility Vehicles),walk their dogs, pick up the poo and place it in a plastic bag then just chuck it down next to the trail. Bizarre.

Like the saying goes, 'there's nowt so queer as folk'.

Friday, 17 March 2006

Triple distilled.

St. Patrick's day. Possibly the only Saint acknowledged here in North America, at the very least the most popular. People are out there today wearing green, everyone has an Irish ancestor and for some reason there is a tradition of eating corned beef and cabbage. I'd never heard that when I lived in England, but then we did have more equal opportunities Saints' days, an outcome of having an established church I guess.

Last year I missed the St. Patrick's day celebrations that I was invited to at my friends' Simmi and Eilie's house, since there was a parents' evening and by the time that was done - so was I.

I don't have any Irish blood, but Kevin's family came over from Ireland as did so many, to escape the potato famine. We went to Cobh last year when we were in Cork, and visited the Titanic museum, the Titanic sailed from Cobh, then called Queenstown. Many families left from this port to go to England, Australia, the USA and Canada and there was an exhibition there about the effects of the famine. It was quite horrifying.

We also visited the Jameson's distillery in Midleton. That was a fascinating tour with a very nice restaurant and bar. We were told that the Irish were first to distil whisky because it was they who adapted the equipment brought from the middle east that had been used there to distil perfume. Irish whisky is triple rather than just double distilled. I suppose when referring to Irish, I should spell it 'whiskey' the Irish way.

Yesterday evening, I found myself thinking about Christine Cagney, supposedly of Irish descent, but that's not why I was thinking about her.
We had been talking about what was coming up on TV and there is a series called 'Close to Home'. It's a lawyer thing or a DA thing or whatever, but it really hadn't engaged me. The main character was just too bland. And Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless wandered into my head. What a fantastic show Cagney and Lacey was. I watched that religiously. I loved both characters individually and together as a team. They were so real in every way, their personalities, their flaws, situations and their looks. Tyne Daly was an amazingly attractive mumsy figure, big woman, never very soignée, and both her character and Sharon Gless's dressed like people really would dress if they were going to work.
So what the hell happened? How did we get from Cagney and Lacey to CSI? C&L was one hell of a popular programme in its day and had huge ratings, so why is it now that programme makers insist that everyone is so unreal on TV programmes? I think that CSI is a good example because the storylines are so great. I feel sure it would still attract viewers even if it allowed its characters to dress and look like ordinary folks.

Ah well, I've still got things to do today, I'd better put the bottle of Midleton back in its special box until later, when we'll be raising a glass to St.Paddy, and to friends far and near.

Thursday, 16 March 2006

One more time for Suzi

I guess we should have known really. I mean the way he stuffed those love handles into that mock elvis white with the high back collar, the painted on surprised eyebrows, the impossible stacks, the theatre make-up.
Oh Gary, Gary, Gary. Why couldn't you just leave well alone after the last time? Did you think it didn't count because they were Vietnamese? Or because they were girls? Or was it that you really thought paying them would make it go away. It's not that we ever loved you, but riffs from your music punctuate the soundtrack of that era for us.

Only Bowie has aged gracefully, been true to himself. Kept the faith. OK, he isn't innovative anymore, he doesn't rock my world, but he IS still an icon, he hasn't compromised that. And when it was his day, he pushed the boundaries. He tried and talked about bisexuality. It seemed like hype then, but now, it seems like Zeitgeist. And man he's a good clothes hanger. The boy done good.

Then Suzi - little Suzi Q. There was something disquieting about her at the time. While we were pogo-ing to the Stranglers, thumping to Adam and the Ants, thrashing around to punk or glam rock, while Debbie Harry was wearing ripped bin bags, and we shopped for dark colours at Biba and Mary Quant, Suzy wore leathers and played a guitar too big for her. We rocked out to 'Can the Can' and 'Devilgate Drive'.

She was from a different rock era, incongruous, like driving along the freeway here and overtaking Derek Trotter's reliant robin. In the time now depicted in 'That 70's Show', she could have been out of Happy Days and then suddenly, years later, there she was, IN Happy Days, Leather Tuscadero, seven whole episodes and the offer of a spin-off. Suzi was playing herself, but she didn't want to be typecast, so she turned it down.

Suzi married and had a kid, but you know what? Really, she WAS Shane from the L-Word, the husky voice, same way of talking, same look, the boy-woman. How could we not have known ?
She's nearly 56 years of age now and she looks fantastic, fantastic and the same. She's just released an album and she's still touring. She's the rock legend that no-one ever mentions.

Let's hear it one more time for Suzi.

Wednesday, 15 March 2006

The Ides of March

So, everyone saw Ciarán Hinds being stabbed in the back in the BBC production, 'Rome' am I right? And with Hinds' Caesar you kind of understood why they did it. I mean at times he was a GREAT leader and at other times he was whacko, still others, downright cruel. And most probably that's how he was.

The BBC over time has fed our modern obsession with ancient Rome. An early example of democracy for us. Hmm....and the Mediterranean diet. According to Eddie Izzard (another of my video teaching assistant gods) the Romans saved us from eating nothing but gruel. Hail Caesar.

Gaius Julius Caesar didn't really conquer Britain, but he spent an awful lot of time tramping around Gaul. And the sight of Vercingetorix, the leader of the Gauls being summarily garotted at Caesar's triumph in 'Rome' was so shocking.

We had to translate one of the books of De Bello Gallico (Caesar's Gallic Wars) from Latin when I was at school. Not the one that Vercingetorix was in. Caesar wrote his own history. So the Caesar that we knew through those pages was through his own voice and he seemed more reasonable, more beneficent somehow, how could anyone even contemplate killing him? they must have been evil.

Vercingetorix was a conflicted man. The Gauls wanted a war leader but not a King, so he had to fight for his people without knowing where that leadership would lead. He was hounded and harried by Caesar. He held out against him and led him like a fox through warrens, but finally he was forced to surrender. He had no example to follow, he didn't know how to do this gracefully. He spent seven years simply languishing in captivity before his inauspicious end. I wonder when his Ides were. I started writing a fictitious account of this some time ago but it has stalled.

Meanwhile back in TV world and in 1976 we had the post Julian Roman Empire in 13 parts. Through 'I Claudius' we got to know Derek Jacobi and Patrick Stewart. We were appalled by the antics of John Hurt's Caligula. We marvelled at the intrigue and treachery as one might when one isn't the target of it.
And Britain was finally conquered. The Romans were about spreading their empire, so when they did come, they shed what blood was necessary, then improved things, protected us from ourselves, started the process of civilisation. When the garrisons finally withdrew a certain amount of chaos poured back in.

Further back still, to 1969. Frankie Howerd as Lurkio showed us a high-camp view of pre-eruption Pompeii. How the BBC's view of the Romans has changed over the years, and by extension, ours.
The slopes of Vesuvius have been resettled and re-planted and while people go about their lives, Vesuvius sleeps and dreams.

The BBC showed us the beginnings of modern Rome, the Borgias, still intrigue and treachery but for a different god.
Rome today is synonymous with the Catholic Church. How goes it in the Vatican? What hints of shadow trickle out from the hidden city?

The Ides of March were Caesar's own destiny, but the soothsayer's plea to beware applies to many.
The great leader who is warned of their fate, who knows in their water that they are out to get him or her and yet who accepts the poisoned chalice of fate.
Embrace destiny oh great leaders, but beware your own Ides of March.

Tuesday, 14 March 2006

At the park

So, I had to get up a quarter of an hour early today. Made the coffee, had a shower, went to the park. This is where I have volunteered my services as an educator of small children - of whom I have no experience - about wildlife - of which I know nothing. But I will. I was given an application form which I can take back tomorrow and which asks nothing about my immigration status. I'm still a British visitor and that's fine with them. I really enjoyed the morning session, Lori, the person in charge was a lot of fun, as was Joanne the other guide. I can see, and I knew, that while my teachery expertise will be of some help, I will also have to learn new skills, pitch it differently. For example, when secondary school pupils tell you they need to go to the toilet, you ask them if they are really, really desperate, they say yes, and you say,
'Well then you have just over an hour before your bladder bursts, lesson's 50 minutes, deal with it.' Whereas when small children ask, apparently you have to let them go.

Likewise, when teenagers say they feel sick you tell them they shouldn't have drunk so much the night before and to die quietly without disrupting the lesson, whereas with small ones - you have to listen and do something about it.
Seems like you can't just shout at them to shut up too.

One of the things which I knew was going to be an issue is physical contact. In British schools we have very clear guidelines about physical contact, in both of the education authorities I worked for, we had someone in to train us.
We were allowed to use reasonable force. We were not allowed to restrict their breathing, pin them to the floor, deliberately trip or strangle them, pin their limbs behind their body and a couple of other things. Mostly the restricting them on the floor amused me I guess. I think it was one of the things the police could do but we couldn't.

I remember Austen attending an information session given by his union when he was doing initial teacher training. They gave the example of a teacher who had punched a pupil full in the face because they were running along the corridor and wouldn't stop. That was deemed NOT to be the reasonable bit of reasonable force. Oh well, I'm sure they put up the best defence possible for their member anyway.

In Canada, it's completely hands off. Now you might be thinking, 'oh, for pity's sake, you're only doing a couple of hours a week volounteer work in the nature park, how much disciplining are you going to have to do?' Well it's more that the little kiddies want to hold your hand and get stung by bees and such like.

I will do my best. I wonder if I'll have to stop saying 'toilet' and start saying 'bathroom'. Not sure I would be able to remember to do that, on the other hand I can usually refrain from saying 'bog' although... the nature park is part bog anyway so that could get confusing.

There are visual aids to distract pupils and parents who talk, such as a dead bat and some toad poo. Stopped me from talking so I guess it works.
I also discovered that there are no venomous snakes in the Lower Mainland. Up in the Okanagan they have a very shy rattlesnake but I am apparently unlikely to meet him. Most of Canada is venom free as far as snakes go, I'm guessing St Patrick called here before going on to Ireland.

Like I said, I enjoyed my morning, really liked Lori and Joanne and I'm looking forward to going back tomorrow.
I have homework, I have to do a short presentation on an object. Don't think it didn't occur to me to take in a rutabaga and a turnip.

Monday, 13 March 2006

In praise of custard

I'm serious, that's all this is going to be, like in Latin class when you had to read Catullus's 'Ode to a Wine Jar'.

On Friday, Karen came round and I made a blueberry pie and custard. She was surprised about the custard, but see, many Brits see pie as simply an excuse for custard.

When we were little, our mum used to have a tin of Bird's custard powder. It had magical properties, it looked white, maybe a vaguely off-white tinge, but when you added milk, it became suddenly yellow, like those books you used to have with outlined pictures and when you washed a paintbrush full of water over them, all the colours showed up. Only yummier.

That's what I have now. Custard powder, and glad to get it too.

I'm sure you can still buy custard powder in Britain, but there the supermarkets cater to our custard lust. Creamy, comforting custard. You can buy it ready-made in foil-lined cartons like orange juice. You can buy it in tins, or in packets to which you just add hot water. You can buy individual pots of it like yoghurt. Chocolate custard, toffee custard, strawberry custard. Original or low fat.
You can buy small fruit pies that have custard already in them, Mr. Kipling does indeed make exceedingly good cakes.
Bird's, Ambrosia, supermarkets' own brands. Most supermarkets also have an upmarket own-brand, fresh custard in a container like a 750ml yoghurt pot. Waitrose custard, pale, made with cream, speckled with fresh vanilla.

Now our problem is, do we eat it hot or cold? With hot pie you can just rip open a carton and pour it on cold. There's never enough. With cold sponge cake you can make a pudding by pouring on hot custard. Even the humble swiss roll can become a pud.
When I went over to see British friend Julie the week before last, we reminisced about bananas and custard, instant bliss, comfort food.

I like my custard thick so that it pours slowly and sets like blancmange, and I like it thin so that it pours easily and fills the bowl up.

Marks and Sparks custard tarts, set custard sprinkled with nutmeg in pastry shells. Treacle pudding or Christmas pud with custard running down it, jam roly-poly and custard.

At school you always had custard with pudding, maybe stewed apricots or apple crumble. Sometimes it was lumpy, sometimes pouring out in a stream the colour of egg-yolk, it didn't matter. You could just have a bowl of custard if you didn't like the pud, if the pud was stewed rhubarb perhaps, yuk.

Ah custard, how can I eat thee, let me count the ways. Oh, no, I've already done that.
That's all I have to say on custard, unless you have more....

Sunday, 12 March 2006

High Sticking

Ah yes, NOW I remember why I like hockey. It is a game that appeals to the low- boredom- threshold being like myself.
As soon as we got in I remembered. The darkness, the loud rock music. The stands filling up, but inside. We had such a sweet deal. We were in a private box. We could go and sit out right over the ice or we could sit as though at a bar and watch. We had food served to us in the intermission, puds in the second one, and we had our own loo. Such luxury. If you were a bloke, there was beer available. If you weren't - well then you could drink lemonade, or beer if that was your inclination. Ok, that wasn't so luxurious, but the rest was great.

Suddenly the lights go on and all the players from both teams are out like flies, warming up, making figures of eight around the ice. The ice doesn't look like ice until ice spray comes off the blade of someone's skate.
Todd Bertuzzi comes out and the crowd cheer him extra hard. Even I feel like cheering Todd Bertuzzi, he represents what I like about hockey. The violence. Last year Betuzzi got himself into a bit of a kerfuffle. He took out another player who had previously assualted a teammate. He was hounded all year by lawyers. Now he's back but he's been muzzled, and that in my opinion was the problem with the whole game. The Canucks were simply not aggressive enough. That's the place for aggression and violence, given that both are human traits. On the pitch, on the rink, not in the stands, not on the street, not in the home, the school, the workplace. No, the big screen and the sports field. Tick.

We stood for both nations' anthems. The stadium wasn't quiet for the US one, but people joined in for 'Oh Canada'. Good thing too, the woman who was singing it had quite an acidic voice. I wondered if they all understood what they were singing, but that's another blog.

A hockey game is like live theatre. The lighting, the punctuation of plays with particular music. The thumping intro to 'we will, we will rock you' while players ready to fight for the puck. The constant refreshing of players on the ice, perfectly choreographed.

The Canucks lost. I don't know the names of positions or tactics, but it seemed to me that the Dallas team - Dallas! A place that has no logical reason why it should play ice hockey - when they got the play to the Canucks' goal, then attacked aggressively until they scored, constantly harrying, whereas the Canucks would shoot from further away.

Before we left, I briefly discussed cricket with the Indian man whose box we had been invited to. I know nothing about cricket, but I know that England are playing India at the moment, and it was enough. Cricket is the ultimate low-boredom-threshold sport, it's about the sitting outside as the sun gently sets, drinking Pimms while men wearing whites hit the ball then run up and down the pitch, no violence at all and you can read your book while they play, no-one minds.

Egress was very civilised. On the street, nothing was torn down or destroyed. No-one was shouting, I felt quite safe leaving with the crowd. But I'd have welcomed a pub. A real, British pub where you could just go in and have a drink, no fuss, no server. It's one thing to not drink because you've chosen to be the driver, quite another to not have the choice.

I enjoyed watching the players on the ice. I realised that I don't engage with the actual game, but I do like the surreal aspect to it, the dance of it, the players swooping around the ice, the music, the occasional spat when players crash into each other and you think something's going to occur, but there are rules, thank goodness, it's all controlled. It's hypnotic, larger than life.
I wonder what it must be like to be able to skate.

Saturday, 11 March 2006

Hockey and Finns.

Don't laugh, we're going to see a hockey game this evening. Not the hockey we were forced to play at school, ice hockey, and there's the diff.
I know what you're thinking, won't my sports filter get in the way? Won't I trip over every time something sports related comes along - like GM place, the hockey stadium for example - well no. It seems my sports filter lets bits of hockey through. Not the boring stuff like the scores, just the fascinating stuff like the skating around on the ice. Although I find ice dance tedious so not quite sure how that works.

I have tried to skate. Just the once. I found it completely impossible. Mostly it involved me clinging to the side of the rink and not really going anywhere. Yet these huge hulking guys, who must have a similar centre of gravity to me just power across the ice and manage to play a game at the same time. How is it possible? Well, frankly it isn't, it's just magic.

Whilst I am watching hockey, my sister has gone to Paris to watch a rugby game. She likes rugby, this is another of life's mysteries to me, how did we grow up together in the same household where no-one ever watched sport and yet she now even watches rugger? Again, inexplicable. Well, I do exaggerate ever so slightly. For two weeks every summer my mother would watch Wimbledon. In the days before cable this pretty much meant that the television was out of commission for the whole time.

Hockey at school was a trial. It was muddy. Now I'm not averse to getting muddy, but at school it meant you had to go in the communal shower. No-one wants that. Hockey also meant permanently injured ankles. Those sticks were a lot more substantial than the ones they use on the ice. Why, bullying off alone could almost render you unable to walk.
Now suddenly, hockey has become a men's game. When I was at school it was strictly for the girls, the expression 'jolly hockey sticks' was used to describe that over-enthusiastic sturdy kind of girl who spoke with a slightly posh accent.

Still on the subject of ice, but with virtually no other connection, we managed to catch Conan O'Brien's trip to Finland on TV last night.
In the UK I used to watch Conan at the weekends on CNBC on cable. You'd get a selection of the week's shows or maybe some reruns over both nights of the weekend, starting at 20.00. I've told my son Ben to watch and see if Conan's trip to Finland is on.
For those who haven't seen the lead up to this, Conan it turns out, is a national hero in Finland and not only that, the President, a woman called Tarja Halonen, looks very much like him. Conan decided to back Tarja in the recent presidential elections based on this fact, and lo! She was re-elected with an increased majority. So Conan felt driven to make a visit to Finland. I know, I know, when he visited Canada it almost caused an international incident, but he seems to have learned from that and although there are some moments when you worry that he may be a little too amused by their names and such like, in general it's a very funny show.
There was one little man, a Lapp, dressed in traditional costume. He spoke the language of reindeer. He looked exactly like an elf. Well, he looked like all the ones I've seen at any rate. He took his reindeer wrangling very seriously, but was laughing when Conan was mangling the chant he used into a version of 'In the year 2000'.
One woman greeted Conan dressed as La Bamba. Another had to put up with Conan visiting unannounced and trying to solve her relationship problems.

When he finally gets to meet Tanja Halonen, she says to him,
'Well at least people in the United States know where Finland is now Conan.'
Yeah, don't count on that Tanja, but it certainly gave us a look at the Finns and they seemed quite startled that the world was looking.

Friday, 10 March 2006

Four teenagers and a condiment.

Still snow on the ground this morning, but on the roads it has mostly turned to slush. I am like a child who has been personally blessed by their god, Kevin is more pragmatic, snow causes accidents and disrupts travel, he may not have much company at work today, not really a problem unless the person who collects the Friday doughnuts from Tim Horton's can't get in.

I'm honestly not receiving sponsorship from either Timmie's or Ikea, though it might be worth looking into.

So, in spite of enjoying my snow in a Zen way, I am looking forward to the summer. Two of my children do public exams this year and so finish school early. But football is paying me back for some of the evil things I have said about it and the World Cup will keep Ben in England long after his exams have finished. He is also not only Holly's uncle, but her Godfather and he has insisted on not coming out until after her birthday.

Alex will be here earlier than Ben. She will have finished with school. I will have one glorious week alone with her. But Alex is gregarious, she is very like my mother with her networks of friends. So the second week of her stay, we have two friends arriving. There will only be a four day overlap when we have four teenagers in the house and at that point, they'll have to use the bus when they go out they won't all fit in the car. And the three girls will have to manage to not fall out, all rooming together in the basement.

This is an odd time for Kevin, step-parenting is a difficult task in the first place, but for him it is very stop-start.
He likes to have guests, he is a good host, unlike myself who has a somewhat lackadaisical approach to hospitality. I think he likes the liveliness of having young people in the house, and Alex's friends are always congenial. He has already negotiated ground rules with her. But it's hard to build and maintain relationships in these short bursts. Alex is a good communicator though, she has her times, like everyone, when she doesn't want to talk, but in general she keeps the dialogue open and flowing.

Then Ben. He can be hot-headed, he will say outrageous things just to see where they will go. But he has a lot of interests in common with Kevin. Music - both playing the guitar and listening to a wide range of bands - and the tech stuff. And this summer Ben's kick is he wants to learn to cook, couldn't come to a better place, Kevin is a fantastic cook and with the kids, a patient teacher.

So where does the condiment come in? No connection, just using it for seasoning. I remembered in that luggage carousel way that my memory works, a piece of trivia.
In Europe, the salt shaker has one hole and the pepper many. This is because salt has a big crystal and pepper small flakes.
In Canada, the pepper shaker has one hole and the salt, many. This is because people tend to use more salt than pepper, I believe.
I'm being lazy, I'm sure there's a moral hiding in there somewhere, but for now, just be careful how you spice.


You can't even see how thick and fast the snow is falling from this picture, and the flakes of snow are bigger than I've ever seen before in my life, granted I've never lived in Lapland.
The snow is sticking, it's on the ground, the roofs, the cars. It'll be gone tomorrow no doubt, for now, I'm staying up like children do for Father Christmas, just to watch the snow falling.
00.20 (whatever it says on the time stamp)
I'm not making this up, as I sat and watched the snow, three bunnies came out of nowhere and just gambolled in the snow around the school opposite's portacabins. Then they scampered off. I swear I haven't had a drink. Bunnies in the snow, if I hadn't been so transfixed I'd have maybe got the camera in time.

Thursday, 9 March 2006

Le Temps

The title is in French because 'le temps' means both time and weather and I've noticed both recently.

Yesterday morning here it was stormy, strong winds, pounding rain, so naturally I felt it necessary to go out to play. I went down to the Nature Park and walked the trails. It was energising, although I must have been the only one out in it, I didn't see another creature whilst I was walking.
On the noticeboard of the nature house I saw a poster asking for volunteers to show groups of school children round the park, so I rang the number. The education lady seemed very enthusiastic when I told her I had been a teacher in England and I was invited to come in on Tuesday morning. Now I'm sure you can feel the approaching cynicism. The only reason I have the time to do this and would even consider giving that time for free isn't that I'm a fine human being, no it is because I'm not yet allowed to work. I can already feel it in my bones that that very inability is going to somehow prevent me from doing this. We'll see.

In the afternoon, the sun came out and I sat like an old lady in a rocking chair by the patio window, quilt over my knees, reading my book.
Somewhen around 22.00, Kevin looked out of the window and noticed it was snowing, hence the picture, snowing and being whipped around wildly by the wind. Fantastic.

I always close the blinds as soon as the light goes. Not everyone does this around here. I don't understand it. I don't want to be on show to everyone at night, nor do I want to be able to see into their houses when I do look out. Why don't they close their blinds, draw their curtains? I like to keep the night out and have privacy inside. Mostly I want to be able to play air guitar and scratch my bum without having to do it gracefully in case the neighbours are looking in. So I close and draw. Strange English woman.

At 18.30 on Sunday, the sky was still dappled, not entirely dark yet. It always catches us out this lengthening and shortening of the days. Year in, year out we make the same jokes, the 22nd of June,
'Oh, the days are drawing in,' the 22nd of December,
'Oh, can feel the days getting longer.'
And then there is always a series of days when suddenly we are aware that it's darker later or earlier, as though there is no smooth transition but a series of little jumps.

Measuring time against clocks. When I was in the exam phase of my life, in exam halls clocks ticked, that's all you could hear. Maybe a pen being dropped. Not any more of course, now time passes more silently. Silent time is better, less pressure, no longer that awareness of time being split into seconds and being lost into the ether, of waiting for the tick, tick, stop.

Time's an odd thing don't you think? It's almost as though it exists because we have a word for it. If we had no word for time would we see ourselves as getting older or would be think of our lives as a whole, that train on whose roof we stand, only seeing in one direction, but in reality the whole vista spread around us?
Perhaps our notion of time is so powerful, so fixed, because we need it to be, it is beyond our comprehension to imagine it not existing.

So melancholy waiting for the season to change. Hints of spring then called back by winter.

Physically, I am a slow person. I'm a slow eater, slow cyclist, slow swimmer, even a slow shopper. I have pondered what this says about my relationship with time, clearly I have less of it available for other things and I do seem to fill my time somehow, but what I really think happens is that I drag time down to my level so that the rubber sheet of spacetime is slightly buckled under the weight of my existence. Or too full of my own self importance perhaps.

Time moves slowly in bureaucracy too. One tiny weeny hurdle was crossed yesterday. We heard that Kevin qualifies to sponsor me. Go figure, it has taken almost two months to decide this. Kevin is fifth generation Canadian and has a good employment record. On the application forms, there is actually no option to state that you were born in Canada.
Be still my cynicism. I am the slow one so I should be able to wait.