Category Archives: Family Life

Four herbaceous shrubs, two trees, and a hernia!

No – not the latest movie from the Richard Curtis stable. This is effectively a summary of my Bank Holiday Monday.

We had been planning quite a lot of work in the garden this spring in order to continue the process of transforming the featureless square box that was the garden when we moved in, into something a bit more interesting. Lockdown had temporarily brought a halt to planning and gardening, but with garden centres now back open, we decided to see whether we could get things back on track. We are fortunate to have a small independent garden centre within 20 minutes walk of the house, and so we did a little recce yesterday afternoon to see how busy it might be, and how easy it would be to make our purchases without breaching social distancing. Thankfully, it was quite quiet and all the stock was outside, further reducing the risk. Satisfied that risk was low, we returned this morning (early) and completed the purchase of two trees, four established herbaceous shrubs and a couple of bush tomato plants.

And so began a long day of toil, sweat and quiet cursing. The problem with having purchased a new build is that the ‘soil’ that comes in the garden is only about 40% organic matter. I have removed house bricks, lumps of concrete, enough nails, screws and bolts to start a hardware store, and even what looks like a metal cover plate for an inspection chamber. At one stage, I had to dispense with my spade and resort to a hammer and bolster to break through the layer of concrete that was conveniently buried 5 inches below the surface of the front garden. I just want to acknowledge the help that I received from the Prime Minister and his Senior Adviser with this. Never has a bolster been struck with such venom and purpose!

Cherry Tree (nearest) and Pear Tree enjoying today’s warm sunshine

Having said all that, the plants are now all in the ground, firmed in and very well watered. And they look great and have already changed the look and feel of the space to the front and rear of the house. The trees in particular bring some height to the garden, break up an otherwise blank run of fence, and (in time) will provide some additional privacy (as well as some scrummy cherries and pears).

I really enjoy gardening. It is one of the very few things that I do where I can stand back once it’s finished and actually see what I have achieved. In the case of the trees and shrubs today, it was doubly satisfying because the purchases have been made with money saved from not having to travel back and forth to work during the lockdown restrictions. This is an environmental ‘double-whammy’ – no emissions from the travelling, AND new trees planted that will further improve the suburban environment around the house.

We still have a few more things to purchase and plant to finish off the vision, but progress is very definitely being made!

A growing problem…

I wrote yesterday about the Saturday dinner and show/film nights that we have instituted in an attempt to alleviate some of the tedium that otherwise creeps in when every lockdown day is pretty much the same as the one before. J. was on cooking duty last night, and fair play, the food was truly outstanding. We ate like kings.

In truth, we have been eating pretty well since this whole thing started. All three of us like to have a go at cooking, and what I lack in comparison to J. and C.’s culinary expertise, I compensate for with enthusiasm and portion sizes. There is a drawback to this, of course, in the form of an expanding waistline. Whilst we do get out for our state-sanctioned exercise hour most days, I regret that the few calories that I burn off then are but a tiny fraction of the excess that is added by biscuits, flapjacks, sweets and (at least on the last two Saturdays) the amazing puddings brilliantly crafted by J. and C.

It seems that I may not be alone in seeking solace in food during these turbulent times. This Tweet appeared in my timeline this morning :

Having discovered a new Indian restaurant that does deliveries during lockdown, I identify perfectly with the husband in the Tweet. However, what I identify with even more was the further Tweet in answer to the question from one of his wife’s friends who simply asked : “Diet going well then?”

Whilst I haven’t quite got to the furlough stage with my jeans, I am reliably informed by those in my household who know about these things, that my denim trousers are now effectively performing the same function for me as Spanx apparently do for a small proportion of the female population (none of whom I know or are related to me at all). It’s a harsh but (regrettably) fair observation that when wearing my jeans I now have the physique of an Olympic athlete from the waist down, and a Sumo wrestler from the waist up. I’m reminded of one of my favourite June Whitfield lines from Absolutely Fabulous. When Jennifer Saunders’ character argues that there’s a thin person inside her just trying to get out, Whitfield replies : “Just the one, dear?”.

Anyway, enough is enough. From tomorrow, I am embarking on a lockdown boot-camp – with a gradual ramping up of the exercise and a more healthy approach to eating between meals. The slight flaw in this strategy is the eleven chocolate muffins with coffee frosting that I was able to create under J.’s careful guidance this morning in response to her tragic longing for cake. It was a bit of a gamble using wholemeal flour (all we have been able to get in the past 6 weeks) and compensating with baking powder; but I have to say, I’m quite pleased with the outcome.

Chocolate muffins with coffee frosting and Malteser or coffee beans

Now – do I polish them all off before I start the new exercise regime tomorrow? Or do I show some willpower and stretch them out over the week? In the interests of denim preservation, I think some willpower is the only option!

Making the best of it

September 2nd 2019 was our 30th wedding anniversary. Mrs P. came up with the brillient idea of planning 30 things that we would do this year to mark the milestone and make it a year to remember. (The other 30 years have each been memorable too, but you know what I mean!). We had therefore made a lot of plans for things to do, places to go, and people to see in the twelve months to September 2020. We have managed to achieve some of them : we had a fantastic holiday in Fuerteventura in September; we revisited York for the first time since our honeymoon in December; and we spent a very relaxing New Year overlooking the estuary at Llansteffan in Carmarthenshire, and walking on the beach in the winter sun.

And then came coronavirus.

So far, plans for a nostalgic evening of 1980s music DJ’d by Martin Kemp, a Center Parcs holiday with J., D., and B., and The Killers stadium concert at Ashton Gate, Bristol have all been re-arranged for later in the year or into 2021. And it’s looking increasingly likely that planned trips to Blenheim Palace to see Lionel Ritchie in June, and to Bath to see Michael Buble in July, will fall foul of necessary restrictions on large gatherings to help manage the spread of the virus. I’m still holding out the faintest hope that we might make it to Skiathos (another ‘revisit’ from the early years of our married life) at the start of July, but I suspect that that is touch and go, too.

All of this is unfortunate, but in the great scheme of things it amounts to little more than an irritation. Events will be rearranged; holidays will be re-scheduled; we’ll always have the 80’s. For now, we are all healthy, in jobs that allow working from home or which are otherwise secure. Bills are being paid. And different forms of making days special are emerging.

Last Saturday, we had dinner and a show (with Mrs P. taking responsibility for a beautiful three course dinner before we all settled down to watch the anniversary concert version of Les Miserables on YouTube). Tonight, its dinner followed by the cinema : J. is in charge in the kitchen and later we will settle down to watch Rocket Man (the Elton John biopic starring Taron Egerton). First though, it’s time for our daily exercise – this time on familiar paths (cf. yesterday’s post!).

Desperate times call for desperate measures

Caution : this post includes images that may cause fear and alarm to those of a nervous disposition, and all hair care professionals

It’s the fourth week of our coronavirus lock-down, and today marked the sixth Saturdaye since I last had a haircut. I’m not saying that things were getting out of hand, but a north Cardiff live action Rumpelstiltskin production was a distinct possibility (although with a lower budget that would have seen the letting down of silver rather than gold hair). So, after careful consideration and with some trepidation, the clippers were charged up this morning, and the shearing commenced just before lunchtime.

It was time for a haircut – things were getting out of hand

Now, I actually quite like going to the barber’s. I’ve got to know the guys in the shop that I normally visit in Bristol (near the office) pretty well. They’re big into their sport and both are well-travelled, and the 30 minutes or so that it takes them to complete my short back and sides is actually a very enjoyable and relaxing experience. By comparison, that moment before I took the clippers to my own hair was incredibly stressful. Just as you only get once chance to make a first impression, so there’s no going back once that first sweep of the clippers carves a furrow from forehead to crown!

Caution : life advice on this blog is offered on a strict no liability basis

Anyway, I’m pleased (and relieved) to say that it didn’t turn out too badly in the end. And by that, of course, I mean that in three weeks’ time it should have grown out sufficiently for the guys in Bristol to be able to recover something from the wreckage! So – brace yourselves – the ‘after’ selfie follows hard on this paragraph.

It’s not just the picture that’s been cropped!

What a difference a day makes

Lock-down in suburban Cardiff has been relatively easy so far. I am privileged to live in a house with an accessible garden and close to country walks. Lock-down for me has really meant not driving, rather than being stuck inside. Ironically, with the weather having been so good for the first three weeks of restrictions, I’ve probably spent more time outside (a combination of regular breaks in the garden, and my hour-a-day exercise) than would have been the case if I’d been working ‘normally’.

Today, though, was a little glimpse of what lock-down would have been like had it occurred at any point between October and February. It’s rained pretty much all day – that kind of continuous heavy drizzle that just makes everything look dull and grey. No coffee on the patio, lunchtime nap in the warmth, and evening meal under the setting sun for me today. And certainly no evening stroll along the river as the sky moves from blue to pink to purple. Thankfully, the forecast for next week suggests that we are in for a return to blue skies and warm sunshine, and that will be a huge boon as I return to full time work after something of a lull for the Easter holiday.

The weather can have a huge impact on mood and attitude, especially at a time of change and anxiety. Professor Nick Haslam published a fascinating summary of research linking weather to mood in The Conversation in October 2013. One of the key conclusions from the research that Haslam looked at was that sunny weather actually makes people behaviour more civilly towards one another : “Happy people are more favourably disposed to one another, and accordingly people are more helpful when the sun is out.” One of the interesting things to emerge from the UK lockdown so far has been the very high levels of compliance with the restrictions that have been imposed, and the outpouring of altruism ranging from volunteers returning tor NHS, to furloughed staff offering to help in social care settings, to the weekly applause for key workers that has brought hundreds of thousands of people out into the street to acknowledge those who are placing themselves in harm’s way to keep essential services running. It’s an interesting question to consider whether the national mood would have been quite so good-humoured during a cold, wet November.

Of course, it’s not just academics who have ‘published’ work that irrefutably demonstrates the link between weather and mood. As far back as 1963, Allan Sherman released Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh, a comedy recording of a song based initially on the letters that Sherman himself had received from his own son while attending a summer camp in up-state New York. It’s a classic and will be very familiar to anybody who – like me – was brought up on a diet of Ed Stewart’s Junior Choice on BBC Radio 2 throughout the 1970s. I’ll leave it with you now as I wait patiently for the good weather to return!

Recreating a Bank Holiday tradition

It is of course self-evident that lots of things were much better when I was a child than they are now. The summers were warmer and sunnier; there was always snow in winter; Cadbury’s cream eggs were the size of bowling balls, and Mars bars could only be eaten in two sittings. One of the things that I most looked forward to on Bank Holiday Mondays as I was growing up was the Disney Time TV special that would regularly feature around tea-time. This was a compilation of clips from Disney animated films, normally presented by a prominent UK TV personality of the time. In preparing this blogpost, I was amazed to discover that the tradition started as long ago as 1961 and that they continued until 1998. Presenters during that time included David Jacobs, Julie Andrews, Peter Ustinov, Bruce Forsyth, Cliff Richard, and (more reasons that I cannot fathom) formula one racing driver Graham Hill.

With the advent of satellite television, and especially with the launch of Disney’s own subscription TV channel just a couple of weeks’ ago, the need for a clips show of movie favourites disappeared. Nostalgia is a powerful force, however, and so for today’s instalment I have created my own Disney Time special. First up is my all time favourite Disney song, from The Jungle Book. The Bare Necessities was written by the Sherman brothers and sung on the original movie soundtrack by Phil Harris.

Next up, a classic from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Heigh Ho! Heigh Ho! It’s off to work we go. Snow White was released by Disney in 1937 and this song marked the first appearance of the dwarfs in the film. The heigh-ho of the song is probably a derivative from the 15th Century nautical phrase hey-ho which was used by ships’ crews to mark the time or rhythm during heavy lifting or hauling.

If Lady and the Tramp is one of Disney’s most romantic films, then Bella Notte is surely one of the most romantic songs in the Disney repertoire. The music was written by Sonny Burke and the lyrics came from Peggy Lee. The scene has prompted numerous parodies since it first screened in 1955.

The original animated version of The Lion King was released over 25 years’ ago in 1994, but – as it’s IMDB review states, it’s a film “that only gets better with repeat viewings”. The music and lyrics for the film were written by Elton John and Tim Rice. As an aside, I’ve just recently finished reading Elton’s autobiography Me. It’s every bit as entertaining as The Lion King, and I highly recommend it!

The Sorceror’s Apprentice is one of eight animated short stories that comprise Fantasia. Amazingly, the film was first released in 1940 and the Sorceror’s Apprentice takes its inspiration from an original 1797 story by Goethe. Paul Dukas wrote the score one hundred years later in 1897. It is the most well-known and often-played of Dukas’ compositions, and the whole sequence was included unchanged in the 2000 re-make of Fantasia.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these selections; and if you are of an age where you too remember Disney Time, then I hope this has prompted some fond memories!

Working Five Seven Five – the haiku guide to working from home

Homeworking works best
When there is a clear divide
Between home      and       work.

E-conferencing :
The business equivalent
Of talk radio;
Jargon and shorthand
Shared with a mute audience
Barely listening.

Office 365 :
Where work collaboration
Meets wifi limits.

Zoom, Skype and BlueJeans
Teams, SharePoint and Hangouts;
The Outlook is bleak!

Easter approaches
Ambitious plans put on hold
We'll stay home this year

30 years and not a single day of regret

I’m going to get in a lot of trouble for this post, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take.

In September, C. and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary. I was the luckiest man on the planet on that day in September 1989, and I have been in number one spot every day since. In truth, we are the very epitome of the ‘opposites attract’ clichΓ©. C. is beautiful, intelligent, gregarious, witty, and short. I’m quite tall. But it’s probably because we complement one another in terms of attitude and outlook that the last 30 years have been so much fun.

To mark our anniversary year, we are revisiting a load of places that have featured on our journey to date. So between Christmas and New Year we are making a brief visit to York, where we spent the start of our honeymoon in 1989 – only this time we are staying in a boutique hotel rather than the cheap and cheerful bed and breakfast that was all we could afford then. We will still though look out for the take away where we bought fish and chips with extra scraps before sitting in the dark and eating them under the slowly darkening sky.

Other things on the list include a walk along the promenade and out across the cliff top at Penarth; and KFC in the car at Roath Park Lake. This past Saturday, we revisited the first place that we ever went to on an ‘official’ date. At the time it was called the Mason’s Arms in Whitchurch, a suburb in north Cardiff. Quite by chance, our booking coincided with Beaujolais Noveau day – when that was still something of an event in the late ’80s. I don’t remember what we had to eat that evening, but I do remember that we were last to leave the restaurant and that C.’s eyes sparkled like diamonds the whole time that we were there. To be honest, whilst C. is as beautiful now as she was then, the former Mason’s Arms has – like me – allowed itself to slip a little in the intervening years. It’s now a Toby Carvery, and it’s not easy to recreate the romance of that first date when the table is a little bit sticky, and the lighting is so bright that you leave with a faint tan! What hadn’t changed was the magic of being in C.’s company – though the wine we chose this time was much better than the Beaujolais Nouveau that we thought we were incredibly sophisticated in drinking 30 years’ ago!

It was Groucho Marx who said : “Marriage is a wonderful institution… but who wants to live in an institution?” Well – any institution that provides as much happiness as being married to C. has provided to me, is well worth living in. Love you loads xx

What is going on with Christmas decorations?

I have had the great discomfort pain pleasure of spending time on each of the last two Saturdays in Christmas departments of retail outlets. Last week it was Harrods; today it was a large garden centre and shopping outlet to the north of Cardiff. I love Christmas, but I hate Christmas shopping with equal passion. Normally, however, the Christmas departments are just about bearable. I like the gaudy baubles for the tree; and the musical Father Christmases or Elves, with their festive melodies and over-the-top laughs. The bright colours and gauchely tasteless nature of Christmas decorations really appeals to me.

This year, however, something weird is happening. Last week at Harrods it was all pastel shades and muted colours – more like a high end paint palette chart than the gaudily bright colours that normally signify Christmas. Today, though, was even worse. When did swans become a Christmas decoration? And what have unicorns, mermaids and llamas (that is a llama in the middle of that tree, isn’t it?) have to do with the festive season?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favour of progress and change. I understand that the environmental half-life of tinsel is now just less than nuclear waste; and we need to wrap our presents in paper that can be easily recycled once it’s been ripped to pieces on Christmas morning. But there’s something surreal about Christmas decorations fashioned to look like rainbows. For myself, I’ll be sticking to traditional decorations that speak to the things that really matter this Christmas.

Have a great Saturday everybody!

A weekend visit to London

I was lucky enough to spend the weekend in London, doing as many touristy things as possible in the 24 hours or so that I was there. Some reflections in Haiku form and supporting photos comprise today’s contribution to the blog. The Haikus are organised broadly in chronological order of the weekend

Tube from Hillingdon
Personal space invaded
But no eye contact

Harrods at Christmas
Conspicuous consumption:
Rich people's grotto

Saturday 'Up West'
Streets thronged with happy tourists
Beggars plead for change

Whitehall late at night
Ministries dark and silent
Power powered off

The Abbey dazzles
White stone's reflective glory
Pure against the dark

Tower blocks rise high
Modern monuments stand proud:
St Paul's looks away

Sunday coffee stop
Autumn sun dapples the park
Squirrels hide acorns

Reflective drive home
London's clamour slowly fades
Was it all a dream?