'No bathroom? Is that even legal?' We've been travelling since ten o'clock. It's now two-thirty and pushing thirty degrees. We're seated in a Bloomsbury cafe and I’d assumed we'd be able to wash our hands before dining. 'Very sorry, no toilet,' we're informed with pleasant indifference. 'What about UCH?' I hiss. Wearing awkward smiles, we rise and mumble something to the effect that we'll be 'back in ten' before we return ourselves to the street and the stifling heat. UCH (University College Hospital) is a only five-minute trot across the Euston Road, but on this scorching afternoon feels a lot further. And my feet hurt. Mutiny's in the air - 'Forget Speedy's, we can eat in the UCH cafe' - but somehow hospital food on my birthday doesn't seem right - and William, much to his credit and after so many hours at the wheel, is pragmatic - so we trudge back to North Gower Street. Speedy's menu consists of breakfasts, omelettes, pasta dishes, sandwiches... mostly something for everyone. I opt for a mushroom omelette with default salad and chips while William is drawn to the house special: seafood risotto. Now we pause and take in the ambiance. From the many framed photos bearing down upon us, we learn that Speedy's was used as a location for the BBC's Sherlock - how about that? And we've only ever known it as that cafe opposite where we usually park that always seems to be shuttered. More than ten minutes later, a server appears; she delivers two dishes to our neighbour's table - and my omelette. A further nine minutes elapse: 'Please, go ahead.' 'No. But thank you.' 'Please.' 'No. Have a chip.' 'Thanks - nice chips - but you must start; it'll be ruined.' 'I couldn't possibly. Have another chip.' - before William's risotto arrives. Though he reports it's delicious, for £10.95 I'm of the firm opinion delivery and presentation require improvement. And my omelette? Dry, bland and not a little indigestible.
Overall, Speedy's staff seem amenable, the premises are worn but tidy and the menu is what it is. Would we go back? Probably not, simply because UCH's grub's better, cheaper - and it provides hand-washing facilities.
Speedy's Cafe; 'pretend' front door of 221b Baker Street; Top R: seafood risotto; Bottom R: mushroom omelette
Chez Rose 18th June 2017
Chez Rose 17th June 2017
A Safe Seat 22nd May 2017
We live in a safe Tory seat. Neil Parish has been our MP since 2010, securing a weighty 54% share of the vote in the 2015 general election. According to his website, Parish is a former farmer and local councillor with ‘a very keen interest in animal welfare’ and ‘the politics of Africa’; indeed, he notes somewhat triumphantly that in 2008 Robert Mugabe banned him from Zimbabwe, a situation that, according to Parish, ‘remains in place to this day.’ (Neil Parish, 2017). What doesn't appear on Parish’s website, however, is any mention of the eye-watering £146,498 in expenses he claimed in 2016. The Midweek Herald helpfully broke this figure down as follows: ‘£111,874 spent on staffing, £20,256 on accommodation, £8,464 on office costs and £5,904 on travel’ adding that ‘Mr Parish, … recovering after a hip replacement operation, was not available to comment…’ while Parish’s Westminster office stated ‘Over four fifths of Neil’s expenses claims are for staffing and office costs. This allows Neil to carry out his parliamentary duties effectively and respond to constituents who contact him. Most of the remaining expenses allow Neil to rent a property in London. This allows him to stay in Westminster for three-four days a week to represent his constituents in Parliament.’ (Carson, 2017). I should note here that when this constituent contacted his office in 2015 she was informed (several days later) that securing an appointment with Parish involved having her name added to ‘a very long waiting list’ as he only held surgeries in this area ‘every six weeks or so’.
One ‘Doctor Matthew Wilson’ is entering the ring on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. On visiting his ‘blog’ I learnt that ‘[This is] the text of the 3 minute introduction I gave at the United Churches Hustings in Axmister (sic) on Thursday 18th June 2017.’ A ‘Doctor’ who can’t spell 'Axminster' and doesn’t appear to know what day it is...
Moving on to our candidate for the Green Party, Gill Westcott. Equipped with an MA in Economics and PhD in Politics she’s ‘..helped run a smallholding, run a vegetable stall and a counselling practice’; she’s ‘a Parish Councillor ... and secretary of the local Community Land Trust’ and she’s ‘helped to start two social enterprises’. (Green Party Members' Website, 2017). Phew! But how could she possibly find any time for her prospective constituents?
Finally, there’s our Labour candidate, Caroline Kolek. On googling Kolek I was fairly surprised to find among the top results ‘Labour candidate tweeted anti-Israel conspiracy theory’ (The Jewish Chronicle, 11 May 2017) and ‘Labour ISIS loon will remain as candidate after apologising’ (Guido Fawkes, 12 May 2017). Kolek describes herself thus:
‘Proud Mother. Wife. Honiton Mayor for 2 terms. Labour Party 2015 & 17 PC for Tiverton & Honiton. Secondary teacher & SENDCO. Trade Unionist.’ (Twitter, 2017) - but please, merciful heaven, not our Honourable Member for Tiverton and Honiton on 9th June 2017.
Reference List: Dr. Matthew Wilson. (2017). Dr. Matthew Wilson. [online] Available at: https://drmatthewwilson.blog [Accessed 22 May 2017].
The Ugly Duckling Restaurant, Dawlish 10th May 2017
A reason to love Dawlish 😍
Knowledge Is Power 27th October 2016
Knowledge is power: spotting that snobby cow from number 23 making-off without paying for her tank-full, the forty-to-one dead cert in the two-thirty at Punchestown - or blood-screening that may have spared a man from a terrifying, premature death - if only the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges' press release hadn’t included it in its little list of ‘forty treatments that bring little or no benefit’ (Taylor, 2016). For 15 years I lived - vicariously - with prostate cancer, diagnosis originating from a random PSA test. We did watchful waiting for a number of years - until the PSA number started to rise. Then the - completely brilliant - oncology department of our hospital took over. To claim, as the Academy does, the ‘PSA test does not lead to longer life and can bring unnecessary anxiety’ is breathtaking. The very word ‘cancer’ strikes terror - and once that word’s out there, trust me, a needle-prick doesn’t raise or lower one's instinctive feelings of ‘anxiety’. Surveillance, founded on six-monthly PSA-testing, has been pivotal; further, following (successful) treatment, four-monthly PSA-testing continues to act as a critical monitor. The mealy-mouthed NHS Choices website concedes ‘screening has been shown to reduce a man's chance of dying from prostate cancer’ followed by the baffling statement that ‘To save one life from prostate cancer, 27 men would have to be diagnosed with it’ and ‘A recent large study in America found no reduction in the number of deaths’ (NHS, 2016). Interestingly, the page offers no citation to support these statements. More interesting still is that America’s leading authority on the subject, the Prostate Cancer Research Institute (whose free quarterly bulletin mailings have educated and sustained us all this while) states: ‘The PSA screening test, especially if performed regularly, greatly improves the chance of catching the tumor while it is still confined within the prostate, before it has metastasized. If prostate cancer is detected early, the patient has more treatment options. But if the cancer is detected after it has spread, treatment options become much more limited’ (PSA & Screening, n/d, emphasis original). I am routinely invited to attend NHS breast and cervical screening appointments; men are offered no equivalent - so are we seriously going to deny them access to PSA-testing on the NHS - if a man's fortunate enough to know of its existence, of course. And if you're still not convinced, go read the American actor, comedian and filmmaker, Ben Stiller's testimony:The Prostate Cancer Test That Saved My Life. NHS (2016) Prostate cancer - PSA testing [online]. Available at: http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cancer-of-the-prostate/pages/prevention.aspx (Accessed: 27 October 2016).
I’m spoilt. I can sense shop assistants want to slap me - and probably should. I purr and croon and issue empty protestations such as ‘I couldn’t let you; not again’ or ‘We simply haven’t the room - have we?' or ‘But you’ve already bought me so much today’ - yes, horrible isn’t it. Next thing, the latest object of my desire is wrapped in tissue while William is entering the four-digit pin (I noted the other day the card’s looking not a little worn…). Then the conversation usually runs something like this: ‘Is it your birthday?’ ‘No.’ ‘Some special occasion?’ ‘No, just another day. I’m spoilt, you see.’ And she does see. And I know just what she’s thinking: That poor man’s a cash cow - she’ll spend him into the ground - what a bitch! But it’s great commission and I don’t make the rules so, hey-ho. My latest fettish is acrylic nail extensions and today I’m in our local nail salon for an in-fill. FYI, I’ve had pink-and-white or ‘French’ three times, Rose Gold glitter tips, Frost glitter tips, Noir glitter tips - and today I’m taken with nails sported by an impossibly pert nymphette with perfect teeth and likewise hair on a poster I’d not noticed before. ‘Those, in the picture, could I have them next time?’ ‘Sure! You can have it today! No problem! I’ll bring you colour wheel! You can choose!’ While my technician electrically grinds and buffs and polishes my digit tips, with my free hand I scrabble through the wheels. I find the one. ‘You like number one-four-five? Very pretty.’ Forty-five minutes later, we’re all done and William has re-entered the salon to pay my way. ‘What do you think?’ warmly demands the technician. ‘Absolutely lovely. Best ever.’ All smiles, we shimmy over to the payment station. ‘What did you have today?’ asks William. ‘Gellish. My first ever.’ And then the bill is presented; I hadn’t thought to ask the price. Outside, William is giggling like a schoolboy. ‘It must be killing you.’ ‘What must?’ I retort pettishly. ‘All these months you haven’t had the most expensive thing in the shop; you’ve been going cheap'. I dig him in the ribs. I’m giggling too, now. Because he, as always, is bang-on the money. Welcome to my world.
Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival 15th-18th September 2016
Time to ‘fess-up: this year we attended our very first literary festival. We tried to attend Cheltenham in 2014; it was my very first venture beyond our street following my stroke in February of that year - and I guess the visit overwhelmed me as I ended-up in the back of an ambulance having collapsed mid-way through Mary Beard speaking about how to read a Latin poem; a trooper, I’m told she was unmoved by St. John’s ambulance attendants and the small throng of concerned bystanders that had gathered round me and carried on with her interrogation of the epigrams of Martial while I was unceremoniously bundled onto a trolley and wheeled out. Spent the evening in a lovely hotel watching Last of The Summer Wine on cable. William took it awfully well. Spread over four days, 'Budlitfest' as it’s affectionately referred to had some real treats on offer, crossing all genres; truly spoilt for choice, I booked three speakers, none of whom disappointed. One of those launching this year’s festival was Helen Rappaport, former actress and all-round Russian language whizz (her direct translation was used for the super 1981 BBC production of The Cherry Orchard) discussing her new book Caught in the Revolution - Petrograd 1917. A little stiff in her presentation style, she is authoritative and clear and brought to life a moment in history brilliantly. She made herself available for signing afterwards and there was a respectable queue for 11am on a Thursday morning. Next, after a delightful couple of hours in the ‘Marquee on The Green (Festival Hub, Bar & Bookshop)’ with expert - though slow - catering provided by Posh Nosh from Exeter, was Ms. Mantel in the vast St. Peter’s Church and wow! Was she popular. We arrived at 1.50pm for 2pm and the venue was already near-full; we squeezed ourselves on the end of a pew between a pillar and a hard place. Disappointingly, a combination of distance from the rostrum and the speaker’s petite stature meant we watched Ms. Mantel on a screen and listened to her via a microphone. Punters further back couldn’t even see the screen, but it was a docile crowd so no-one complained. Mantel read her new short story, In A Right State (shortlisted for the BBC’s Short Story Award) then - and this was thrilling - explained her approach to writing and particularly to structure. She concluded by inviting questions after a one-and-a-bit hour gig - but, as was made clear throughout the festival literature, would not be available in the book signing tent. We returned on Sunday to listen to another former-actress-now-biographer, Artemis Cooper, speak about her life of Elizabeth Jane Howard: A Dangerous Innocence. She was relaxed and enthusiastic about her subject - even when her host - Ms. Mantel - appeared to get a little cross when Cooper refused to endorse Mantel’s feminist portrait of Howard as ‘victim of the press’, Cooper maintaining Howard had invited-in criticism on many an occasion. But everyone stayed friends. And Cooper attracted a very respectable crowd of book-buying autograph hunters afterwards.
Professor Ivan Roots 6th September, 2016
Ivan Roots was born in Maidstone, Kent in 1921, graduating in 1941 with a First in Modern History from Oxford University. On his return from active service during World War II, Roots accepted a lectureship at Cardiff University (then University College); it was in Cardiff that he met Tegwyn Williams, daughter of a leading labour councillor - and Ivan’s future wife. Roots’s key area of academic engagement was the seventeenth century British civil wars; his 1966 text, The Great Rebellion, 1642-1660 is considered a set text for students of that period. Following its publication, in 1967 Roots was recruited by Exeter University as Chair in History, later becoming its Dean of the Faculty of Arts and ultimately, Head of Department until 1985 when he retired. He was also an energetic book reviewer, contributing regularly to The Daily Telegraph, The Observer and the BBC. With a particular passion for all things Cromwellian, Professor Roots presided, between 1977 and 1989, over The Cromwell Association, transforming it into a forward-looking, academic journal of worth - and a registered charity. Nor did Ivan leave Cromwell behind at the office; an entry in Tegwyn’s diary for 1991 records the arrival of the newest recruit to the Roots clan, a grey moggy and that ‘there can only be one name for him: Oliver.’ A bibliophile of the first order, Professor Roots was a regular attendee at book auctions which is how he and I met, albeit posthumously. Earlier today William presented me with a most astonishing gift: a small part of Professor Roots’s impressive personal library. And this isn’t any old library. I have before me, for instance, all four volumes of Wilbur Cortez Abbott’s The Writings and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell, a review copy for the ‘Book Review Editor’ of History Today of Jerrold I. Causeway’s Owen Roe O’Neill and the Struggle for Catholic Ireland - complete with original invoice from University of Pennsylvania Press, John Miller’s Popery & Politics in England 1660-1668 and an ‘offprint’ enclosing a personal note to Professor Ivan from one of his pupils relaying an eventful and amusing anecdote regarding a lecture the student had recently attended. I googled that student and he is now a Professor. One particular text, The Poems of John Donne, clearly was of particular worth to the young Ivan Roots, purchased from Blackwells in Oxford in 1941 (see image, right), the year of his graduation.
This short list but scratches the surface of the treasures I now own. I would like to think Professor Roots, ‘a lovely man’ who died on 8th February 2015, is content a part of his collection is, for now at least, in safe hands.
* Tegwyn died just six weeks after Ivan, on 27th March.
I first met Aurora in 2013. Auburn-haired, petite with a small, fine nose and an inquisitive, bird-like gaze, she was a head-turner; she’d strutted her stuff all the way to a first placing in a local beauty pageant - I’ve seen her trophy, it’s impressive. A little eccentric, Aurora was spirited and blessed with a cheery optimism. With a manner that was direct - to the point of rudeness - she was constantly under foot and if she had something to say, did so - puncturing conversation with a ‘what what’, inviting an astonished ‘what ‘what’?’ in response. And could she eat! Pecking from dawn to dusk it seemed, like a bird, eating her own weight on a daily basis. How she kept her trim figure was downright unfair. But she did let herself down in one respect: her manicure. Ragged and grimy, she had the claws of one engaged in an archaeological dig. But she didn’t seem to notice or if she did, didn’t care. The first sign that something wasn’t quite right appeared early summer. Her breathing became laboured and brought to mind the sound made by a distant owl in the darkest hours. And she slowed down, no longer underfoot, drained of her spirit and optimism, now content to sit the day out, in the shade. Yesterday she collapsed. William and I rushed to her side, supported her, made her comfortable in her favourite spot and helped her to sip a little water. Aurora seemed recovered, a little weary but stable. So we bade her good night, comforted she’d feel stronger in the morning. It was William who found her. He opened the chicken coop hatch and there Aurora was: cold, unblinking, her filthy, unkempt beautiful claws curled tight. Aurora, who went so gentle into that good night. We miss you. *Abraham, Aurora's mate, passed peacefully on Thursday, 22nd December, 2016.
The Brook, Dawlish, 5/7/2016
A Piece of Cake? No Thanks 5th July, 2016
Nestled in Devon’s south coast, the seaside town of Dawlish is a - not quite - buried treasure reminiscent of 1970s Jersey: olde worlde gift shops flogging entry-level souvenirs to a coiling throng of coach parties who don’t want to be there; would rather be back home with their work mates, neighbours, their neighbour’s cat - anywhere, in fact, than with their ‘loved one’ in this godforsaken nomansland. But that’s another story. Unspoilt, Dawlish is dominated by The Lawn - a rectangular organisation of manicured green, kaleidoscopic shrubbery and a babbling brook, home to Dawlish’s iconic black swans. Easily accessible, the Town offers plenty of blue badge parking, for which we salute it. Untouched by the usual rash of high-street chains (Costa, Smiths, another Costa, Primark, a third Costa and so forth) Dawlish depends on independent seasonal businesses dominated by those offering novelty trinkets and various shades of hospitality. Today is my birthday. The sky is azure blue with a pleasing cirrocumulus and the temperature - like Dawlish - hovering in the mid-70s. William and I have strolled gently around The Lawn and decide it’s time to take some refreshment. As it’s my special day, I get first dibs and we make for a quaintish-looking tea room named A Piece of Cake. We enter and make for a table-for-two shoehorned to the side of the doorway. I am distracted by a bluebottle that doesn’t see the point of the antique fly-killer strip above our heads. And we wait. Eventually a big woman, dressed in black polyester, rolls our way and plonks down two wipe-clean menus on the wipe-clean table cloth. William’s already spied a ‘today’s special’ board offering scrambled eggs and smoked salmon on toast. Yes please! But no toast, thank you, while William opts for a Devon cream tea. He turns brightly to our hostess who’s maintained a stoic silence throughout our deliberations. ‘Hi. The lady would like the scrambled eggs and smoked salmon - but without the toast, please.’ ‘NO toast?’ ‘That’s right, no toast, thank you. And we’d like coffee with cream. You do have pouring cream?’ ‘No. Just clotted.’ ‘Right, in that case can we have tea for two. And I’ll have a cream tea, thank you. ‘So that’s NO toast and tea for two.’ ‘Um, yes, thank you.’ I shoot William a look of concern as Polyester makes for the engine room of her enterprise, a formica-clad counter-cum-serving hatch. And we wait. I observe Polyester preparing tea for two - but to my surprise, it’s not for us but for her and some crony she’s been gassing to since we arrived. Polyester then doubles back to the hatch and treats the entire room to a floor show: ‘That’s NO toast.’ ‘NO toast?’ ‘That’s right. She says “NO toast” and then he chips-in with “NO toast”.’ ‘I thought you’d writ ON toast!’ ‘No, I write everything down careful, me. It was NO toast.’ William, his back to the theatrics, is nonetheless aware of a hubbub and notes my expression. ‘They talking about us?” ‘Oh, yes. I’m absolutely boiling.’ ‘They looking this way? I’ll tell ‘em to stuff it.’ ‘No. Let’s just go.’ And we did, to the accompaniment of dropping whisks, spoons and jaws. Our day was cushioned by the Sea Breeze - a spotless steel-glass-mirror affair with comfy chocolate-leather seating and a bright and cheerful staff. William got his cream tea and I snaffled ham ’n’ eggs. Perfect.
"I therefore decided to say No henceforth to every suggestion, request or inquiry whether inward or outward. It was the only simple formula which was sure and safe. It was difficult to practise at first and often called for heroism but I persevered and hardly ever broke down completely. It is now many years since I said Yes."
O'Brien, F. (1993). The Third Policeman, London: Flamingo Modern Classics, p.31