Thursday 29 November 2018

A Stink in the Sink

Several weeks ago I heard something moving about upstairs, at the top of the house, in Richard's study. I was in our bedroom, getting ready for bed, and at first it sounded like scratching on a window pane, as if the holly tree had grown elongated fingers, and was trying to attract my attention.

While Richard was still downstairs, and despite the scratching, I managed to get to sleep. By four o’clock in the morning he was up and ready to do his final ‘early morning’ shift as a relief driver.  (He now leaves the house at the civilised hour of 9:15 a.m. and only once a week). However after he’d gone to work something else disturbed my sleep. I can only describe it as marbles or pin balls being rolled around just above my head, across the bedroom ceiling. 

Then the scratching at the window started again. The finale to this symphony was a rustling, as if someone was upstairs, in Richard’s study, unwrapping sweets.

What could it be? A family of rats watching a film, enjoying a bag of sweets whilst the teenagers had a game of pool and the youngsters played with marbles?

By the time I was properly awake Richard was back, having done part one of his early shift, and eating bacon and eggs downstairs. I related the tale of the possible intruder and said I’d get in touch with ‘the team’ at the council - we both agreed we’d got a little offender scurrying about upstairs. But what? Was it a rat? There was nothing behind the skirting boards, as far as we could tell, and our cat wasn’t sitting, watching or waiting to pounce on some terrified vermin. 

In time 'the team’ came to pay us a visit. As the ‘little offender’ hadn’t returned and the noise was high up in the house it was decided that we’d likely had a visit from a squirrel. Apparently squirrels see a gap under the eaves of a house in the same way as they see a hole in a tree. They run under floor boards and explore someone’s home as if traversing the branches and trunk of an old oak. But they rarely stay or make a nest. They are, apparently, unlikely to be persistent.

Just in case, however, the blighters decided to move in, 'the team’ put down poison, upstairs, in the roof space, just behind the eaves and downstairs under the kitchen sink, behind the cupboards. That way we could tell if any poison had been taken in the unlikely event our ‘little offender' returned. So, that was all all right then.

Or so we thought.

Yesterday there was a rank smell of wet, dirty rags coming from the en-suite bathroom. I had cleaned and bleached all three bathrooms, toilet bowls, sinks and washbasins on Sunday and Tuesday. Yet the smell persisted from Tuesday evening until yesterday, Wednesday night. It was so bad I got a headache and had to sleep with the bedroom windows open. Thankfully temperatures outside have risen. If we’d had windows open overnight last week we’d have been found, days later, frozen in our bed.

I didn’t get chance yesterday, Wednesday, to thoroughly disinfect everything as we were out most of the day and a friend came round in the evening. Thankfully she didn’t need to go near our stinkbomb of an ensuite bathroom.

Finally, late last night, Google provided me with various theories about the ‘great stink’:

1) It could be a lack of water in the U-bend. It appears a layer of water is vital for stopping smells and gases coming up through washbasins. 

2) It could be smells lingering from elsewhere. In order to get rid of that I poured bleach down every sink, washbasin and lavatory in the house (except one.)

3) My theory was that some cleaning rags were past their best and needed to be thrown out. (I did just that. Others were soaked.) I washed over every surface in our bathrooms and re-bleached the kitchen sink. I re-mopped all floors and generally did a very late spring clean.

After all this exertion the ensuite was certainly smelling fragrant rather than foul but I spotted a whiff coming from the plug hole in the shower tray. I re-blasted it with disinfectant and crossed my fingers. Had I managed to shift the smell? Had I stifled the stink and obliterated the odour?

And if I hadn’t was it simply the smell of a rotting corpse? A rodent that had taken some of the poison meant for the squirrel? Or was it indeed an intrepid but silent squirrel that had unwittingly feasted on the deadly pellets? 

Tonight, at bedtime, the aroma in the bathroom was one of air freshener not dirty rags. The stink in the sink had evaporated. Let’s hope it doesn’t return. Or else we’ll have to have ‘the team’ back. The team is one man and his van. I don’t know if he’s the same person that I spoke to when I contacted ‘Pest Control Supervisor’. (And what does a pest supervisor do? Watch the rats at playtime, making sure they don’t get up to mischief? Or walk up and down while they sit, in a line, behind the skirting board, tackling their GCSE exam papers?)

Apparently the council offer a pest identification service. First catch the little offender ... And what if you only hear them at night, just as you’re trying to get to sleep? I don’t relish the thought of traipsing into the roof-space at midnight to take a selfie with a rodent. 

It might bite...

Monday 26 November 2018

Barbie doll the refugee

It isn’t just now that I’ve been hit by the stark differences in peoples’ lives. When I was growing up I must have been the only girl in the western world to have dressed her Sindy and Barbie dolls in rags. While my friends bought the latest Barbie doll fashion item I had my toys cope with one bag of old clothes and camping equipment. I would play with them and make up stories of their fleeing from conflicts. Whoever heard of Barbie Doll - the refugee?

But that was then. Today we have other issues: As Black Friday offers merge into Cyber Monday savings, credit card spending and general consumption go into overdrive.  One cannot be unmoved by the sheer contrast of differing worlds: this indulgence and Yemeni children dying in their tens of thousands. 

As I’ve had a curious year (health-wise) I have today allowed myself a pre-Christmas treat: a signed hardback book and something for the home. To offset this extravagance I have also raised money for girls’ schooling in Sierra Leone and made a donation for the starving in Yemen. This week I will also use money set aside for non-essential Christmas gifts to pay for water treatment tablets and essential foods for those starving and displaced in Syria. And then I will make another donation to the homeless in Britain.

On the one hand my money is going on ‘things’ to make my home more comfortable while others barely have a tarpaulin for a roof. On the other hand I’d rather spend money on our house than, say, going out for a meal. For the last six months I’ve eaten healthily and exercised in order to keep fit and trim, following a slipped disc. To blow money on rich foods now would seem beyond indulgent.

But for the starving, cold, unwell and exhausted simply to be able to choose between buying something for their home - if they have one - or for their belly must be a great luxury. An impossible dream. Especially if they have been in refugee camps for over a year. The starving, cold, unwell, exhausted and displaced must wonder whether they will again have a home of their own. I doubt whether they are worrying about what design of scatter cushion would go with their  furnishings this side of winter.

In Britain to be homeless in December or January is to suffer cold, wet, icy temperatures, disease, failing health and ridicule. 

Even in Syria - a country we think of as hot - winter temperatures are just above freezing. Picturing a place without proper shelter and chilling winds reminds me of Christina Rosetti’s poem:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow.

It would be good to have more money. I am one of the Waspi generation. (Women against state pension inequality). If I had more I could give more to those in war-torn countries. I could be more generous to a little boy starving, ribs showing, too weak to whimper. 

What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man, I would do my part.

But for now I’ve given what I can. We shall have to wait for our garden fence to be fixed and for new trellis work to be installed. Money set aside for that will be donated to charity instead. 

I still wonder why my Barbie dolls were refugees. Perhaps it’s because in the 1960s I saw pictures of wandering souls on the television. Or maybe it was because my father taught us to read books about inclusion and acceptance. He didn’t use those terms of course. But he taught us how different peoples’ lives were and that however they lived they were still people. 

Sunday 25 November 2018

Facebook Anonymous anyone?

In just over a month’s time ( cripes it’s November 25th!) we’ll be planning new year’s eve parties. Or hogmanay if, like me, your surname is a Mc or Mac or from north of the border.(Don’t mention borders!!)

And it’s customary, isn’t it, to devise new year’s resolutions on December 31st. 

Amongst my list for January 2018 were

1 Keep fit ( ie do my exercises)
2 Swim more ( ie go more than once a month)
3 Get building work done ( ongoing in an old house)
4 Book a trip on The Orient Express
5 Get my manuscript out to agents
6 Get off facebook

For most of January I did 1,2,5 and 6.
All was going well. Then my back went. And what do you do when you can barely get out of bed for a pee? 
I’ll tell you:

You lie in bed or on a sofa or stand (eventually) and don’t exercise. You take 13 painkillers and associated medication and don’t concentrate on a thing. The sitting-to-write or edit or send out to agents becomes impossible. If you don’t believe me read Anna Burns - Booker prize winner. She’s had a terrible back and couldn’t, at that time, get any writing done. 

One thing you can do, however, is walk. But we had thick layers of snow in February and March. The cold winds play havoc with my back and make the muscles tense which leads to more pain... So I didn’t even get out to do any walking. And I was frightened of breaking a limb on the ice.

Furthermore, as a result of ongoing back pain and an inability to move (or deal with luggage) I didn’t book our trip on The Orient Express (surprise, surprise) and had to give up our walks until the snow receded. By April this year I wasn’t fit and got more and more sluggish. I couldn’t change into a swimsuit or get into a swimming pool until June of this year. That’s how feeble I had become.

Moreover if you cast your eye over my list above and reacquaint yourself with my resolutions the only two I haven’t considered are 3 and 6. 

When your builder doesn’t want to do ‘little jobs’ you can wait an awful long time to get things fixed. Now, November 25th - almost winter in meteorological terms - it’s too late to have our outside tap fixed. We hardly need to use our hose on overwintering broad beans and spinach! But having had a heatwave this year it was exactly the time to have a long hose pipe properly fitted in order to reach all corners of our largish garden. But no. Fixing our hose pipe was too ‘little a job’. 

I did manage to keep the spinach going by shading it with a parasol and mulching heavily when we went to Ireland for ten days. But I lost crocosmia and kaffir lilies through the heat (or the snow?) It was a pity as the dead plants were from my late mother’s garden. I do have a few left but it’s not quite the same. We all have to live with loss. 

That leaves resolution 6. Again - it seems simple now - what do you do when you can barely do anything apart from take painkillers? You watch tv, sometimes standing, sometimes lying flat. And you click on things on your iphone... That doesn’t bode well for resolution 6 - get off facebook.In fact I’m probably looking at fb more now than ever. 

I will have to hide my iphone. After all it’s not life-saving equipment. I don’t need it like an asthmatic needs a nebuliser. It’s just habit. Like alcohol or smoking. It may suit the predicament if I form fb-anon. A quitters group for the ‘I’m addicted to fb’ gang.

But, seriously, resolutions are about forming new, good habits and ditching the old ones, aren’t they?

I have, since my back healed, managed to resurrect resolutions 1 and 2. In fact I do more than that. I get in 9000-10,000 steps daily and am much fitter than even this time last year - way before I had a bad back.

Richard and I have both decided to postpone our Orient Express trip until the end of 2019. And I have joined another writers’ group to help lick my manuscript into shape. After the group has made its suggestions I’ll take heed and get it out to agents once more. Plus I’ve found a builder who says ‘ no job too small’ on his advert.

That just about takes care of new year’s resolutions 1-5 above. It’s only taken eleven months to get there.

But I’ll have to be lifted, kicking and screaming, off fb. My iphone is with me all times like a heart pacemaker. 
Resolution 6 will need the big guns to get any action in 2019.

Facebook Anonymous anyone? 

Monday 19 November 2018

Austerity, the UK and the UN

Whether or not The Guardian publishes my letter about our hideous treatment of the poor and disabled in the UK, following their report on UN findings relating to the vulnerable in Britain, I feel I must air my thoughts and experiences here.

If any of you have followed my fb posts over the past six years you may have noticed how I’m confounded that a country like ours can’t - or won’t - afford to staff or support its NHS properly. Our health system was set up in the immediate after-war years, when the UK had a much greater debt than now, following an expensive war with Germany and the Axis powers. If we could afford free hospital, GP and nursing care in 1948, why not now?

We are still, despite Brexit, the fifth richest economy in the world, yet we treat our impoverished no better than the poor sods sheltering under London’s arches in 1840. I have commented before that we have returned to Dickensian Britain. In A Christmas Carol Scrooge has to be shown what it is to struggle, to be homeless or lame. The novel could do with a modern retelling. 

In a civilised, wealthy country there can be no need to treat people who have nothing with such disdain. When George Osborne said, in the early days of the Cameron government, that ‘We are all in it together,’ my hollow laughter echoed around the hot air vents emanating from Bath’s subterranean hot water springs. I bet someone’s sheltering there tonight. They can’t lie on the benches around the Guildhall as someone has put obstructive bits of metal on the seats making it too uncomfortable for the homeless to stretch out. 
Conversely let’s hear it for the great and good who work at Julian House - a homeless charity  in Bath that’s busy saving the lives of the dispossessed. 

Osborne’s lie ‘We are all in it together’ inspired me to write my collection of short stories Austerity and Other Cuts. My tales are based on the poor, the unemployed, the virtually-homeless folk I knew, or knew of. The ones known to me all had university degrees but the benefits system they relied on was being pulled from under their feet.

Heaven help them now if they hadn’t managed to get jobs five or six years ago. Sleeping on a canal boat in winter is no fun when you haven’t even got an on-board toilet...


I have been a special needs teacher all my working life. I therefore chose to work - in the main, but not exclusively  - with boys and girls from non-privileged backgrounds. Some of the homes I’ve visited over the years have shown me what poverty, ‘not quite managing’, is all about. For instance a couple of homes I visited had no curtains. In one home a child whom I represented but whom I didn’t actually teach, slept with the family pet dog in his basket. Another home was spotless. Too spotless. There was no food in the house. The kitchen cupboards were much cleaner than mine.

Yet all these families had a home. They were living in council houses or flats. But in recent years such hard-pressed tenants may have been at the mercy of private landlords or in B & B accommodation. 

Over the past few months I’ve found it expensive to run a home in Bath - and I’ve worked all my life. I have my own home, can run a car, still have good health and I’ve never had children. If I’m feeling the pinch - with ever-increasing prices in the shops - how must it be for people who rely on benefits or are on such low pay they aren’t ‘just about managing’. They can’t be managing at all. 

Someone I met a few years ago (another graduate) said she had to decide between buying sanitary-wear and food. That’s poverty. When my mother was a young mum in the 1950s her friend dreaded going to the butchers with a few coppers (coins) in her pocket. What was she going to buy for her family of five? 

I believe it was Caitlin Moran who said that poverty was always having a wet towel in the bathroom. So many wet hands forever trying to get dry on the solitary family bath sheet. 

And our government is making life even harder. Unless you’ve lived a life of poverty, or been through a difficult time financially or know of folk who have, how can you be in government and set up such an unfair benefits system? As Ken Loach said it is ‘calculated cruelty’. And now Philip Alston, UN Rapporteur, has brought to the world’s attention what the UK is doing to (not for) those in need:

The United Nations rapporteur has condemned the British government's "punitive, mean-spirited and often callous" treatment of the country's poorest and most vulnerable, in a damning report.

As documented in The Independent last week
the UN's special rapporteur said policies and drastic cuts to social support were entrenching high levels of poverty and inflicting unnecessary misery in one of the richest countries in the world, adding that Brexit was exacerbating the problem.

His final recommendation states that, as the country moves toward Brexit, the government should adopt policies designed to ensure that the brunt of the resulting economic burden is "not borne by its most vulnerable citizens". 


This year I won’t be waiting until Christmas to add to my Crisis at Christmas donations. Nor will I wait to be told to pack some extra foodstuffs for The Trussell Trust foodbanks. Tonight the temperatures outside are dropping to 2 degrees above freezing. Julian House in Bath will be working wonders while the rest of us turn on our electric blankets and watch a film or the latest bulletins on May and Brexit. And we’ll be sighing from inside our centrally-heated homes. 

Why are we being plunged back into the 1840s? Some at the top should re-read A Christmas Carol or watch An Inspector Calls.
Both works show how heartlessness and penny-pinching drive people into the gutter.
Have our leaders learned nothing about giving someone a hand-up?

Four cheers for Polly Toynbee who simply went for George Osborne on a recent TV panel discussion. Do such leaders - past and present - feel nothing for their fellow man and woman - literally - on the street? 

Wednesday 7 November 2018

My last food blog - for now

Given that I have left it rather late in life to show an interest in food I'm still surprising myself that the very subject has got me writing about it. I believe having a husband who has always cooked from first principles - and not from jars, packets and tins - I've probably lived the last 35 years on a reasonably healthy diet. But what I've learned since following Michael Mosley and his team has awakened me to the importance of non-processed, low-carb foods.

I had a friend in France, her English was about as good as my French, who believed in non-industrialised food. The problem was she was so often ill and painfully thin. I always reckoned to eat well before we went for a meal with her. In other words she was no advert for eating non-processed foods. Her healthy diet left her with a contorted gut and constant headaches. 

However I fell into the Michael Mosley 5:2 Mediterranean diet - with good fats, lean meat, fruit and veg - easily and quickly. The advice was also to avoid non-processed foods, especially those over-flavoured with sugars. Eating porridge oats and natural Greek yogurt with blueberries for breakfast was no hardship for me as that was my regular fare. I love home-grown tomatoes and spinach. All I had to do was open a can of tuna in olive oil, plus a few olives themselves, and I had a nourishing lunch. Now, as the seasons have changed, I put about four medium carrots in the food processer and, with a chopped onion and a litre of stock, I make a truly tasty carrot soup for lunch. What's more the claim that the Mediterranean diet wouldn't allow me to feel hungry was spot on. If I felt peckish I gnawed on carrots and dips or a slice of halloumi. Even a glass of wine and 80% cocoa-chocolate pieces was allowed. All the things I liked. 

Now I have to eat like that for life and not return to high glycaemic index carbs. 

What is off the menu includes the humble spud - very GI carbohydrate, but I easily substitute sweet potato for that. Some irony there but the sweet potato has better carbs. In place of refined white rice I eat wild rice which is nutty and easy to cook. I haven't had pasta nor pizza since the start of the summer - about 5 months now - and I don't miss it. Apparently I'm going to enjoy spelt-based pasta with the family this weekend. And in place of white or wholemeal bread I find I like rye bread just as much. 

As I mentioned in an earlier blog the one thing I have missed is a decent slice of cake. Cake is, of course, full of sugar and high GI flour. I have tried baking with coconut flour but that was too sweet for me. I didn't enjoy almond flour either but a great find has been buckwheat flour and the Dove's flour range. I'm not a coeliac but in my quest to get away from high GI carbs, over-processed and high-sugar foods, using buckwheat has been a really good alternative.

Last week's recipe for chocolate cake - made from red kidney beans - just about cracked the moistness problem. Most cakes that are not wheat-based have tended to be dry. Although the red kidney bean cake rose in the oven it deflated quite quickly - as expected - but the texture and moisture earned five stars. Tonight I will defrost it and cover it with a chocolate ganache. If  I have time before our travels I'll make a second one but it's so easy I will have time, on our return, to make another for our last party for this 'season'. 

Essentially I have learned to be more selective when it comes to eating carbs. Many that claim to be wholemeal may be full of sugar. Many low-fat yogurts or cottage cheese may be overloaded with sugar too. Fat is not the enemy. Our bodies can cope with it better than over-refined carbs which upset our insulin levels and actually add to layers of fat - as storage - more dangerously than butter or full-fat yogurt. This was news to me.

I'm off for a swim in about an hour. Keeping active, now my back is restored, makes me feel much better. I'm no longer sluggish. I walk up and down Lansdown hill at least weekly and I rarely feel tired in the swimming pool. I'm not naturally athletic, however. I'm afraid physical activity seems repetitive and boring but I do like to have energy. I read somewhere any adult should easily be able to run a few yards for the bus if required. ( First drop the heavy bags you're carrying I would add to the statement.)

What a pity I don't enjoy sports more. I could become really fit! However a low carb Mediterranean diet based on fresh veg and fish or poultry is something I can enjoy. And - having studied the science of it a little - over the last few blogs - I know that nutritionally I've never been more healthy. I hope you have enjoyed the journey too. 

Thursday 1 November 2018

Food blog eighteen - Healthy chocolate cake

For those of you who have been following my food blogs you’ll know I’ve been trying gluten-free, sugar-free and low-processed (low GI)carb foods. 
I’ve also been doing a work out - roughly thrice weekly. All this activity is in aid of the restoration of my strength & fitness after suffering a slipped disc at the start of the year. 
When going ‘low-carb’ it’s imperative to cut out bread, pasta, rice, cake and biscuits. I’ve not missed anything in this list apart from cake. And, as dark chocolate is a treat which is a boost for good health, baking a wholesome chocolate cake has become my mission. 

I’ve tried several chocolate cake recipes. The first was a good taste but became desperately dry. I broke it up and used it as the base for a rich amaretto trifle instead. Soaked in booze. Lovely!

The second recipe I tried was moist and had a splendid rich chocolate ganache but even that cake - with olive oil and more added liquid - tasted dry after a day or so.

Discussing recipes with a friend (who me?) we decided we’d try a red kidney bean cake. This is gluten-free and I make it with Truvia so it’s sugar-free too. It’s also one of the better versions of chocolate cake when it comes to moisture.

Red kidney bean choccie cake-
this is v moist & gluten-free

  • 420 g canned kidney beans - drained
  • 1 tbs coffee (liquid)
  • 1 tbs vanilla extract
  • 70 g cocoa powder unsweetened - I use chocolat Menier
  • 1 tsp baking powder - gluten-free
  • 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 125 g butter or  90 g/100 ml olive oil
  •  ( cold pressed)
  • 5 eggs
  • 180 g sugar or 60g Truvia

😉You may want to add a little extra vanilla to the cake mix if you find olive oil has an obvious taste. I don’t but others might want to mask it.

  • 1 In a food processor, puree the beans, coffee, 1 egg and vanilla until smooth. Set aside.
  • 2 Combine butter/olive oil and truvia/sugar in a food processor until pale and fluffy.
  • 3 Add the remaining eggs one at a time, to the butter mix, processing well after each addition.
  • 4 Add bean mixture and process until combined.
  • 5 Add sifted cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda and salt and mix well.
  • 6 Pour batter into a 22 cm greased round pan and bake for approximately 35 minutes at 180C/160C fan.The cake will spring back when touched and a skewer will come out clean when the cake is cooked.

😉 The cake might deflate once out of the oven - this is normal. 

When cool cover the cake with a ganache made from whipping cream and broken, melted 70% cocoa chocolate squares. 

For the ganache
  • 400g dark chocolate, roughly chopped (I use Green & Blacks 70% dark chocolate)
  • 200ml cream

To make the chocolate ganache, place the broken dark chocolate pieces in a mixing bowl, then set aside.
Bring the cream to the boil - just bubbling - and pour over the dark chocolate. Immediately mix well with a hand-held mixer until the chocolate melts and the ganache becomes silky smooth. Set aside to cool


1 Once cooled, beat using an electric mixer until fluffy and smooth if you want a thick, fluffy frosting.
2 Otherwise - let it cool a little then pour on the top of the cake starting at the centre and working outwards. This gives a glossy finish.

Alternatively - if you want to :-
Carefully cut the cake in half. Spread half the ganache onto the bottom half of the cake and spread to the edges. Place the top half back on top and then smooth the remaining ganache over the top of the cake.