Thursday, 26 February 2009

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream...

I have that ‘haven’t had enough sleep’ feel today: limbs like steel girders, heart pounds alarmingly when I walk upstairs at a snail’s pace, feel slightly sick and can’t face breakfast. I woke abruptly, see, in the middle of the night with the kind of start that sends adrenaline pumping round your body and means there’s not a cat’s chance in hell of dropping off again for at least another hour. So I lay there and listened to my husband snoring. I thought I’d turn him on his side to stop the racket only to find that he was already on his side. Oh. I contemplated moving to the spare bedroom but couldn’t quite face getting up. And talking of cats, there she was, squeezed between us in a languorous stretch; my stirrings stirred her and she decided to sit up and embark on the sort of scrub down which made the whole bed shudder, accompanied by the slightly unnerving licky, clicky, chewy sounds which only a cat engrossed in its ablutions can muster. I sighed and turned over, a reluctant witness to the nocturnal performances of my bedfellows.

At a certain point, job done, cat disembarked and padded out of the room. Things to do, people to see. Where the hell was she going at this hour? No cat flap so fat chance of a quick fag outside. Off to open a few cupboards, perhaps, make an omelette and maybe polish the silver? I shall never know. Before long she was back, leaping onto the bed with a throaty chirrup, her guilty secrets locked up in her furry head, stretching herself once more, sausage like, into the space between us.

I didn’t want to look at the clock. Fatal error, that. You see the time and panic. Well, I do. I have a pathological fear of being denied sleep, such is my need for it. Without it I simply cannot cope. The smallest things become mountains I can’t possibly climb. I go all shouty and cry and feel depressed. I barely have the stamina to empty the dishwasher or load the washing machine, any other task being completely out of the question. Give me eight or nine hours sleep, on the other hand, and I have the energy of a meteorite. And that level of sleep happens with about the same frequency of a meteorite which means, my friends, I spend most of my time being shouty and simply emptying and loading the dishwasher. No wonder my career stinks. But I have very clean plates.

While the cat was away cat burglaring or whatever, I took advantage of the extra space to stretch out on my back, place a pillow under my knees and practise a bit of yogic breathing. Usually does the trick. Not tonight though. Much huffing and puffing later I was still wide awake. The cuckoo clock downstairs in the hall brazenly chose to tell me it was 4 o’clock when I had SPECIFICALLY not wanted to know. (‘Cuckoo clock!’ I hear you gasp. Yes, indeed, I’m afraid it was a present from my slightly unhinged aunt and uncle-in-law, of whom I am most fond. It’s not one of those Swiss chocolate ones with plastic figurines who spin round nauseatingly. No, no, 'tis all wood and not a splash of red or blue or green in sight. It will have to do till we find a grandfather clock and keeps me company during the day, reminding me I am late again.)

You may be wondering, or maybe not, what it was that woke me with such a start? Well, in the way that only dreams can blend reality into a surreal interpretation of the events of your life, I found myself with a large tray of lasagne in which, it seems, bulbs had been planted, which, when introduced to the heat of the oven, decided to start sprouting. So there I was, oven gloves on hands, removing this tasty platter of bovine product from the oven with green sprouts coming out of it. It was like a hot grow-bag. Now, when you consider that I had made lasagne for supper by recycling Bolognese from the freezer, and that I had been planting bulbs that lunchtime using compost from an old grow-bag, you see how it all came together. Ah yes, the brain, a source of endless fascination.

So there I am, writing a thousand words in my head, wondering about going down to the computer and quickly deciding that sitting hunched and cold in my dressing gown in my study while all the western world slept was not ideal. When suddenly the alarm clock goes off. Have I slept? Have three hours really slipped by while I shuffled and twitched and had grim thoughts and shared stories with the cat? I shall never know. But I felt crap.

Interestingly, as I haul my reluctant carcass through the day (thank God the yoga ogre cancelled due to a heavy cold), I refer to the Horizon programme I had half an eye on last night while I whipped up white sauce with one hand (for the lasagne) and pancakes with another: it’s all about body clocks. Now this is something which I have long since understood. It’s been the most perfect excuse for doing sod all. It basically seems that there is hardly a decent stretch in the day when your body is really up to dealing with modern life. ‘Eat like a king, lunch like a prince and dine like a pauper’ goes the old proverb (I like old proverbs). Well, yes, that all makes sense: start the day with a stomach full of food which will take you nicely through to lunchtime when you can tuck in decently again to get you through the next stretch and then eat lightly in the evening as your body clock slows towards bedtime. Yet how many of us really have a chance to do that these days? Even my retired parents still have their main meal in the evening. It’s like they’re building up to it all day. It’s the thing they look forward to. But yes, going to bed on a full stomach makes no sense at all. Not only are you not burning up the carbs so you put on weight as you sleep, but apparently your low levels of insulin at this time of day means you have more unconverted glucose washing around your body which can lead to diabetes later in life. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED! And it gives you the WEIRDEST dreams...

The programme also confirmed that there is little point exercising in the first half of the day (so much for my yoga class then). Apparently, due to the nature of the human body clock, our blood pressure doesn’t get sufficiently lowered by exercising at this time for it to do us any good. Conversely, most world sporting records have been broken in the late afternoon or early evening. Meanwhile, most of us get a dip in energy around two o’clock in the afternoon which, apparently, has little to do with whether you have eaten lunch or not and is just an energy trough brought about by your body clock. This, I learned, is when most road accidents occur as people drop off behind the wheel for a few seconds. The answer? Stop the car, get a coffee, drink it, go back to the car and snooze for 20 minutes (the time it takes for the coffee to take effect). Voila.

So if you’re in the middle of a meeting at work at 2pm and feel an uncontrollable urge to shut your eyes (I think we've all been there...), just say ‘sod it’ and lay your head down on the desk and have a quick zizz. If everyone’s doing it, then no-one will notice, will they? Oh yes, it’s all so simple really.

Trouble is, I get my biggest energy dip just as I have to gear up with the children – drive here there and everywhere to pick them up, ask lots of interested questions about their day, answer lots of questions about everything and anything, get them going on their homework, make them supper, get them out to Brownies or some such nonsense on time, get the bath running or the hair washed, fill in all the forms, write the cheques and sign the homework diary, listen to them read, help them with their piano practice, clear up the supper and smooth their troubled little brows or laugh at their jokes – when all I really want to do is slump in front of Ready, Steady, Cook or The Weakest Link with a cup of tea and drooping eyelids.

And it was no better when I was at work. I had a complete panic attack if there were any meetings before 11 o’clock in the morning (the time, interestingly, that I was born). Up until that point all I could really manage was faffing around with some filing. Phone calls were completely out of the question too. Far too energy sapping. But hey, there I was still going strong at 8 o’clock at night when the rest of the office had long since left the premises. Funny old business.

Even now, on reflection, I feel marginally better when the dreaded alarm wakes me after six hours sleep than I do after seven. It is all down to whether your body is woken in a biorhythmic peak or a trough, I suppose. Anyway, strikes me I spend more of my days troughing than peaking and when I’m troughing I have to peak and when I’m peaking I can probably trough. If you still follow. Fact of the matter is, I wish I was the cat. She spends her whole day reacting to her biorhythms – mewling for food, pottering outside, coming back in, mewling for food, having a snooze, going outside, mewling for food, having a snooze. Oh yes, she’s got it sussed. And no doubt she’ll come and taunt me again tonight, denying me precious duvet coverage and disturbing my lurid dreams of tulip entangled tagliatelle and my whole new personal take on ‘pasta primavera'. Or, since I had my hair cut today, it might feature a bloody great platter of lasagne perched on the chair, little legs dangling, while the hairdresser tidies the daffodils sprouting out in all directions. Yeah, just keep eating the cheese, Love....

Thursday, 12 February 2009

While Sheep Safely Graze

One of my plans for the New Year was to make sure I had a little walk or outdoor activity each morning, or as many as possible, before settling to the tasks ahead of me in my day. The idea was to a) get some exercise and fresh air and b) make sure I stay connected with, and get the most out of, the wonderful environment in which I am lucky enough to live. Then I can come in and put the kettle on and get on with the jobs without feeling hard-done by and cheated and frustrated that I seem to spend my whole time tidying mess, washing the smalls and sorting out everybody’s life but my own.

So, having returned from the run down to school, I decided I was going to have a go at re-building a collapsed bit of dry stone wall that is, technically, our responsibility. The fact that it has collapsed thanks to the farmer’s inability to contain or control two errant sheep who were finding our garden the sheep equivalent of the Garden of Eden over the last ten months is, of course, quite another matter.

However much sheep fencing and barbed wire N painstakingly put up on wind and rain swept November weekends, Adam and Eve still somehow found a way in. Usually over a dry-stone wall. It didn’t matter what the height – sheep have a far greater ability to jump than most would give them credit for. Chasing them out of the garden and watching them veritably pole jump over whatever wall was closest, crashing down onto the lane on those spindly looking legs with that great woolly body, it was a wonder they didn’t break limbs every time. But no, the little black hooves, which had made my lawns look like the fields we’re surrounded by, skittered about on the tarmac but somehow held those bulbous bodies up. Quite remarkable really.

Now, I am getting quite adept at dry stone walling, if I say so myself. Having made a brief study of the construction of such walls at an educational farm not far from us, I built a little one at the top of our garden a few years back using just the stones that were scattered about our patch. Given I did not have the luxury of choice, it came out surprisingly well - if not a little low, simply because I ran out of raw materials. It’s still standing, anyway, and I’ve planted daffodils around it so it looks quite pretty in Spring. Then there was the one I repaired the other day which the plumber destroyed. But that’s another story.

This particular job, however, was short-lived due today’s sudden drop in temperature from about 4ºC yesterday to minus 3.5ºC this morning. As I tried to wrench the fallen mossy stones from the frozen ground, I couldn’t help singing the first verse of my favourite hymn:

‘In the bleak mid winter, frosty wind made moan
Earth stood hard as iron, Water like a stone
Snow had fallen snow on snow, Snow on snow
In the bleak midwinter, Long ago.’

Abandoning the cause for now, I decided to collect some kindling instead from the fallen branches of the mighty sycamores whose skeletons loomed above me and which guard one side of the house. This done, I then set off for a little meander over the hillside. E had noted on the way to the school bus: ‘the world is looking very grey today’. Indeed. Yesterday’s rains had removed much of the beautiful white cloak which had covered the landscape and still looked so beautiful on Tuesday. Today everything was in an icy grip – pinched, raw and still. The reservoir lay below me, no reflection, just matt and lifeless with its frozen lid. The hills were patchily grey-green and grey-white and the sky above them the sort of pale flat grey which often precedes another snow storm. One is forecast for late this afternoon, but I don’t think it will come. Icy sleet, perhaps, but not soft snowflakes.

The ground I walked on, pitted by the hooves of sheep and cattle, was hard and lumpen, cutting into the soles of my feet despite the thickness of my snow boots. The moss on the walls was sucked of its normal plump greenness, lying flat and forlorn on the uneven lumps of gritstone. Even the cowpats were hard.

I followed the contour of the hill away from the house, then stood for a moment and looked across to the other side of the Comb’s valley. I surveyed the proud, severe escarpment which forms the westerly edge of Comb’s Moss and where an Iron Age fort once resided with its commanding views over the valley. I swept my eyes left, to the northerly hills beyond the reservoir. Eccles Pike appeared still to have some snow cover. I saw some cars moving along the lane which traces that side of the valley, along which a number of my friends live, and heard the hum of cars on the main road which travels along the valley, mercifully unheard from our house and the village.

Turning my attention back to my field, I looked up. I decided a short sharp ascent was what the doctor ordered. This would be the quickest way to the track above our house which would bring me back down in a neat circle to the awaiting kettle. The hill looked less daunting in its winter flatness. The tufts of summer grass make it harder to ascend. As I climbed, I crossed lines of frozen snow and bare grass and a collapsed dry stone wall along which, following the contour of the slope, were short stout holly trees and hunched bare hawthorns. The pitted earth at their bases showed the sheltering place of livestock during harsh windy nights. I knew that, at the top of the hill, I had to negotiate a broken makeshift wooden stile which would take me, God willing, over a wall laced with rusty barbed wire before I could reach the stone stile which led onto the track. Things were not made easier by the frost on the stones and the wood and before I knew it a rusty barb loomed ever closer to my crotch. One slip and I’d be maimed for life. While performing an inelegant origami-esque manoeuvre, hands and feet in extraordinary positions, I managed to catch the inside of my knee on the wire. While painful, it could certainly have been worse! Then, feet finally safely rooted on ground the other side of the obstacle, I looked up. A flock of sheep, etched against the sky on the brow of the hill, stared at me in stoney silence. Some stood, some were seated, but all were ruminating with their gaze fixed firmly on the intruder as their jaws slid methodically from side to side. I stood and stared back, locked in a moment of shared amusement: them at my antics on the wall, me at their resemblance to a glazed-eyed audience at the cinema munching popcorn. A few mastications later, sensing the show was over, they started to shuffle and fidget a bit and turned their attention to other things, leaving me to continue on my way, unwatched. I hopped, rather more elegantly, over the wall with the proper stile and smart yellow ‘footpath’ arrow, down onto the track. And promptly fell flat on my face. It was sheet ice, as far as the eye could see. I’d unwittingly reached the little known Combs Ice Cap, sadly, though, without the necessary spikes and crampons to negotiate it. I attempted a few brazen little steps and slipped over again. And again. I was glad the sheep couldn’t see me. Clowns and circuses came to mind. There wasn’t even space at the edges of the track to stumble down. There was nothing for it. I had to go back. Oh the humiliation. Those sheep had the delight of seeing me re-appear and negotiate the rusty barbed wire wall for a second time. I ignored their cruel bleatings and pressed on. Safely over this time, my cruciate ligaments and my dignity just about in tact, I crunched through a thick layer of icy snow at the base of the wall which shadowed the track, peering over from time to time to see if the polar ice cap had started to melt or not. Indeed, at a certain point, I was able to scrabble over a bit of low wall, slither through some bilberry bushes and drop onto the uneven stones of the pathway. I still had to watch my footing carefully as I pondered whether hooves are perhaps not such a silly idea after all. Before my question was resolved, though, I’d reached the safety of the asphalt at the top of the lane which leads back down to the kettle. A warming drink of tea, and then I would settle to the tasks of the day with colour in my cheeks, fresh air in my lungs and a new insight into sheep. Good grief, can a girl ask for more on a Thursday morning before ten?

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Weather Watch

Monday 2nd February 2009

Don’t you just love it? Bit of snow and the whole country grinds to a halt. Our co-inhabitors of Northern Europe exist happily enough throughout winter – snow, ice and all – and still manage to go to school, go to work and generally live their lives. But oh no, not here. Despite the fact that we have hoards of people losing jobs left, right and centre we don’t seem to have the foresight, the insight or indeed enough collective brain cells to plan ahead and get teams in place to deal properly with the weather conditions that may, just may, be expected in a country on the last stop before, ah let me see now, just check the map, yes, as I thought, ICELAND. Isn’t the name just a teensy bit of a giveaway? Now, children, if you’d care to get your atlases or globes out, you will also see that GREENLAND is the next stop after ICEland. Don’t be beguiled by the name, GREENLAND. No, just look at the picture on the page and you will see that GREENland is actually all WHITE. And WHITE, on atlases, means SNOW and ICE and VERY COLD. And, of course, beyond Greenland, we have the ARCTIC. Polar bears, glaciers and stuff. Cold. OK, maybe not as cold as it used to be, as another iceberg goes crashing into the sea, gone forever, but pretty bloody COLD nonetheless. Brrr. My point, I think, is that, given its position on the planet, we should not not expect to have cold, snowy, icy weather in good old Great Britain in the winter.

But it seems this is a fact all too often overlooked by the great powers that run our country so, erm, extraordinarily efficiently (gosh, what’s that pink muscly thing lodged firmly in the side of my mouth?). Every news programme so far today has been almost entirely taken up by pictures of snowy landscapes strewn with broken down or stuck vehicles accompanied by earnest interviews with a bloke from the RAC warning people that ‘though some highways may be moving freely, the side roads can be TREACHEROUS’. You don’t say?

I think we have a two-pronged problem here. 1) The authorities have absolutely zilch idea how to prepare for snow; 2) The good people of Britain have absolutely zilch idea of how to behave in snow if the authorities haven’t prepared the highways and byways properly (which they invariably haven’t). I watched in disbelief as saloon cars in London with clearly no four-wheel drive or snow tyre capacity attempted to pull out of their overnight parking space. Ooh, funny that, they slipped. Backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, and got precisely nowhere. What do these people THINK is going to happen? Now, while I have to applaud, at least, their desire to get to work and try and keep up some semblance of normality, it’s really not much good to anyone if all they do is cause another accident and leave another road blocked and stretch the emergency services even more. At which point I will neatly insert a link to the ever-helpful BBC and their completely useless video 'how to drive in snow'. Clearly they think we are a nation of thickies. Clearly we are.

I can, of course, sit here smugly crowing at the stupidity of all and sundry because I am the proud owner of a set of SNOW TYRES. This all came about because on the first dollop of snow this winter, in early December, N sagely took my 4-WHEEL DRIVE Audi out (rather than his ineffectual oh-so-fast Volvo whose wheel profile is so low it looks like you’re driving on the hubcaps) to take E and G to the school bus at some unearthly hour of the morning. What he didn’t know was that the car had just failed its MOT for having partially bald tyres (on the inside, in my defence – hence I had not noticed. God, I’m not THAT much of a girl!). So he swings out of the drive to start down our very steep bit of hill and finds himself sledging into the nearest dry stone wall, girls screaming in the back of the car. Good start to the day. Having done the damage he thought he may as well go on and get them to the blessed bus. This was just about achieved despite the odd further dancing on ice moves along the way. But wisdom got the better of him on the way back and he abandoned the car at the pub and spent a long time trying to walk back up the hill in his leather soled work shoes. Minus an overcoat. (He’d left this on a train some days earlier and it had ended up in Plymouth. Handy. He’d tried calling the train operator and when he finally got through to the relevant office, several attempts later, they were pleased to tell him that lost property don’t have a phone. You have to leave a message which they write down neatly on a piece of paper and strap to a pigeon’s leg. Lost Property then have a look around for your lost item and write a note and strap it on to another pigeon’s leg and send it back to the other office. The other office then call you back. All very efficient. The wonders of modern technology. They’ll be inventing fax machines next.) He was gone for hours. To be fair, I had started to worry and rang him just as he was slipping and sliding his way up the last few yards, lips blue and teeth a-chattering.

So, just an hour later, finding myself in the salubrious surroundings of Selecta Tyres, Buxton, after a hairy drive on my bald tyres along the A6, I felt the need to discuss the possibilities. It may have been the flashing Merry Christmas sign above the hot drink dispenser which altered my state of mind, but after a bit of head scratching and sucking in of teeth, I decided to hang the expense and go for the snow tyre option (which means buying ANOTHER whole set of tyres in the Spring). But you know, as they say down at L’Oreal, it's worth it. I have been trundling my way up and down the hill ever since, come rain, snow, ice or shine without such as a backward glancing blow to any stone walls and with the children arriving neatly for the school bus without even the slightest brown stain in their pants. This, I feel, is a bonus and adds considerably to my quality of life, let alone theirs.

Talking of quality of life, it seems there was someone at Hazel Grove this morning who felt they had none left. I took N down to the train station mid-morning, him having returned relatively unscathed, albeit de-scaled, from the clutches of the dentist. I followed him up the steps to see whether he’d missed the train or not and he was informed that all trains were currently terminating at Hazel Grove because of a fatality. My husband, standing there like a character out of Little Britain, all ship-shape in his suit and overcoat (now returned from its holiday in Plymouth – presumably by carrier pigeon), clutching his briefcase, visibly bristled and spat out ‘I don’t see why that always has to bring the whole network to a standstill!’ I could have died (no pun intended). Let’s not think about the poor person being scraped off the line then, and the traumatised family currently being informed, and all those signing up for counselling who witnessed the ghastly event. And who’s to say it was suicide, anyway? It could just have been some poor person on an icy, snowy platform running to catch the train in unsuitable shoes. Just like my husband in fact…

Having the right grip is, indeed, a very important issue in current conditions. And I certainly think we’ve lost our grip in this country. Having just seen the evening news, I notice that other members of the public are in despair at the ineptitude of our northern isle when it comes to bad weather. As planes skidded off runways and not a bus or train was to be seen in London, one man dismissed the place as ‘Third World’, while others muttered the word ‘pathetic’. The copious news correspondents reporting the drama (at vast expense to the tax payer) were revelling in the horror and chaos around them. Then finally they decided to put the other side of the story. The one I’ve been trying, feebly, to get across: how come the rest of Europe copes? Well, thanks to a nice little piece from ‘Our Man in Moscow’ which advocates de-icer (doh!) and a shovel and scraper in yer boot (is that for de-icing or disposing of the dead body?) – all such precautions I, the stupid housewife, thought fit to take (I even chucked in a bag of salt, muttering ‘be prepared’ and ‘dib dib, dob dob’ as I did so) when I ventured out into the snowy wastelands. We were also advised to take a warm coat (tell that to my husband) and to make sure we had plenty of petrol and have the mobile phone charged up. Thank you BBC, what would we do without you. There then followed a short little piece on the economics of investing in the sort of snow clearing equipment and infrastructure that our continental friends enjoy. It seems it does not make economic sense and it’s better to lose £1 billion per day in lost workforce instead. We can afford it, let’s face it! In fact, can anyone tell me quite how much of the taxpayer’s money this country has poured down the drain in the last few years? A few billion on a bit of fancy 21st century snow clearing equipment (or even the odd gritter or two) really wouldn’t make much difference, now, would it? And think how much face we’d save in the process? And the job creation schemes – my God, the possibilities are endless!

Anyhow, personally, I feel the best investment, particularly if you live in the frozen north (despite the south currently beating us at our own game) is SNOW TYRES. Snow tyres for the snow. What a novel idea. Hurry down to your nearest Woolies while stocks last! Oh sorry. Don’t have that anymore either. Well, only online, it now seems. But that’s a whole other story…

In the meantime, I thought you might enjoy this nice little round-up of 'The Day the Snows Came (and caused complete chaos and billions of pounds in lost revenue for the coffers of this increasingly absurd little island perched precariously in a mighty ocean on the northern continental edge of Europe)'.
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